Tech groups applaud FCC white spaces vote

Barack Obama wasn't the only big winner in the U.S. on Election Day. The Federal Communications Commission's decision late Tuesday to allow new kinds of broadband devices to operate in unused television spectrum will reinvigorate the U.S. tech industry and provide a new broadband option for customers, supporters said.

Several big tech vendors, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Motorola Inc., have pushed the FCC for years to open up the TV spectrum to unlicensed broadband use. Although President-elect Obama hasn't taken a stand on the so-called spectrum white spaces, he has called for the U.S. government to focus on ways to bring broadband to parts of the country that have limited or no broadband options.

"This is a historic vote for our national economy, for consumer choice and more competitive broadband markets," said Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, a broadband provider based in Asheville, N.C. "Most of all, it is a victory for those areas of rural America and underserved urban neighborhoods, which have too long been denied the benefits of affordable high-speed Internet access."

Despite strong lobbying efforts by the U.S. television industry, wireless microphone makers, some churches and performing artists, the vote "should be a clear signal to the new Congress and administration that this ruling is based on solid science and sound public policy," Bowen added. "Nov. 4, 2008, will be viewed by history as one of the FCC's finest moments."

Bowen and other supporters said two rounds of FCC testing showed that white-space devices can operate in the TV spectrum without interfering with other uses. A report released by the FCC in mid-October showed that prototype devices avoided interference in most, but not all, cases. The FCC will require new devices to include safeguards against interference, including geolocation technology, which uses GPS and other technologies to match a white-space device's location against a pre-existing database of spectrum users.

Opponents of opening up the white spaces to broadband devices continued to raise concerns that the devices would interfere with TV and wireless microphone signals. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) noted widespread opposition to the white spaces vote, including dozens of U.S. lawmakers, several U.S. sports leagues, national TV networks, several large churches and dozens of performing artists.

Tuesday's vote "is just the beginning of a fight on behalf of the 110 million households that rely on television for news, entertainment, and lifesaving emergency information," Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president, said in a statement. "Going forward, NAB and our allies will work with policymakers to ensure that consumers can access innovative broadband applications without jeopardizing interference-free TV."

U.S. customers should expect new types of broadband devices in about two years, some observers said. While some of these devices may be traditional smart phones, others could offer more options. Possibilities include smart peer-to-peer devices and enhanced home broadband networks, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Tuesday.

The TV spectrum, in low frequencies on the spectrum band, will allow broadband signals to travel significantly farther than they can on Wi-Fi spectrum, supporters say. The 54 MHz and 698 MHz spectra will continue to be used for digital TV signals after the February 2009 switch from analog to digital broadcasts, but in all U.S. TV markets, parts of that spectrum is unused.

The lower-level TV spectrum will be better-suited to deliver long-range wireless broadband, or "Wi-Fi on steroids," as Martin said.

The FCC vote "ushers in a new era of wireless broadband innovation," Microsoft said in a statement. "Like other unlicensed facilities, which enabled popular technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, white spaces will make possible new and creative solutions to a range of broadband connectivity challenges. And it will create opportunities for American companies to remain at the forefront of technological innovation worldwide, helping to create jobs and economic growth."

Google co-founder Larry Page also applauded the FCC vote.

"I've always thought that there are a lot of really incredible things that engineers and entrepreneurs can do with this spectrum," he wrote on Google's blog. "We will soon have 'Wi-Fi on steroids,' since these spectrum signals have much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations, resulting in better coverage at lower cost.

"As an engineer, I was also really gratified to see that the FCC decided to put science over politics," Page added. "For years the broadcasting lobby and others have tried to spread fear and confusion about this technology, rather than allow the FCC's engineers to simply do their work."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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