By Frederick Lane / Mobile Tech Today. Updated October 16, 2008.
For the last two years, a coalition of high-tech companies and organizations called the Wireless Innovation Alliance has been pushing the Federal Communications Commission to allow access to white space, the portions of the broadcast spectrum set aside by the FCC to prevent interference between neighboring television signals.
WIA's members include such computer-industry heavyweights as Google, Dell, Microsoft and Motorola, as well as such public-interest groups as the New America Foundation, the Public Interest Research Group, and Free Press. Google has been particularly active, hosting a public-relations campaign called Free the Airwaves that features videos and a petition currently signed by more than 18,000 people.
There is a great deal of interest in the unused frequencies because they are particularly well-suited for carrying data signals over long distances and through obstacles, including the walls of buildings. If the technical issues can be resolved, WIA and other groups believe they hold tremendous potential for new consumer broadband applications.
Technically Feasible, But Complicated
WIA's campaign got a boost Wednesday with the release of a report by the FCC's Office of Engineering Technology (OET) which concluded that using low-powered digital devices on the frequencies between television channels is feasible, although some further testing is necessary.
"We are satisfied," the OET said, "that spectrum sensing in combination with geolocation and database-access techniques can be used to authorize equipment today under appropriate technical standards and that issues regarding future development and approval of any additional devices, including devices relying on sensing alone, can be addressed."
As the OET suggests, any devices designed to use the white space would have to be equipped with a sensor to determine if any neighboring frequencies are in use, so they can be avoided. In addition, by building in geolocation, a white-space device could query a database to find out if there are any broadcasters operating in a particular location at a particular time, to further reduce the risk of broadcast interference. Google has offered to build and host the database.
"This news should be greatly encouraging for American consumers," said Richard Witt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel. "The FCC now has more than enough information to develop appropriate rules that protect TV stations and wireless microphone users from harmful interference, while at the same time allowing innovators and entrepreneurs to develop technology that productively uses these airwaves."
Strong Opposition From Broadcasters
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a fan of national broadband access, has expressed support for the proposal and has added it to the FCC's tentative agenda for its Nov. 4 meeting.
However, the idea has been roundly condemned by broadcast groups. The lead opponent is the Association for Maximum Service Television, which argues that white-space devices will harm digital television broadcasts. In an interview Wednesday with Broadcasting & Cable, MSTV head David Donovan said the proposed use of white space will "decimate over-the-air TV."