WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to allow anyone to use vacant space between TV channels for wireless Internet and other services.
Commissioners approved the decision with few reservations,saying they expect the ruling will benefit consumers while protecting TV stations from interference. Four commissioners approved the decision in full and the fifth dissented in part.
Tech companies propose to use the so-called white spaces,unused TV channels and the space between TV channels,for high-speed wireless Internet and new services. Many have described Internet provided by white space devices as wifi on steroids,able to punch through thick walls and cover larger areas at a lower cost than wifi.
“Let's hope its not just wifi on steroids,but wifi on amphetamines as well,” said Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein. “It's that fast.”
Those bits of the broadcast spectrum were originally set aside to prevent analog TV signals from interfering with each other. The transition to digital television lessens the need for white spaces,freeing up prime pieces of broadcast space that vary from region to region.
If licensed,the space would be worth $8 to $24 billion,said Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. Tate said she supported the decision in general,but wasn't sure allowing use of the entire TV spectrum was necessary.
Late last year,the commission auctioned a chunk of the airwaves vacated by analog TV sets,bringing in about $20 billion.
“The time has now come,I believe,to increase the amount of unlicensed spectrum,” said Commissioner Michael J. Copps,who added that the decision would promote innovation.
Broadcasters,wary of possible interference from devices that use white space,have sought stringent controls on who gets to use the space,and how. The National Association of Broadcasters,which represents more than 8,300 radio and television stations,fears devices operating in white spaces will interfere with TV signals – ruining sound and picture quality. Widespread interference would drive advertisers and viewers away from TV stations,a potential disaster for the association and its members.
Tech companies pushed in the opposite direction,arguing that allowing anyone to use the space without a license would spark innovation and spur competition for Internet services. They propose three methods for avoiding interference: checking for existing broadcasts,using a database of licensed stations to prevent overlap and using beacons that would warn white space devices not to interfere.
During FCC tests,engineers found that prototype white space devices couldn't reliably detect existing broadcasts. All initial white space devices will use geolocation technology to determine where they are and search a database of occupied channels in that area. Commissioners agreed that method would prevent interference.
The FCC's challenge,said Chairman Kevin J. Martin,is to balance the risk of interference with the need to efficiently use the airwaves.
The high stakes spawned a vicious fight between the broadcasting association and the Wireless Innovation Alliance,a coalition of tech companies and public interest groups. Broadcasters “stretched the limits of reason and reality” in their objections,according to a news release from the wireless alliance.
Broadcasters created a Web site starring “Wally” a mean-looking wireless device that appears to take glee in disrupting football games and newscasts. The site also features a video showing a white space device disrupting an elderly woman's TV set.