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FCC opens up "white spaces" to tech companies

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday gave Google, Microsoft and a number of other tech companies what they wanted by granting free, unlicensed wireless devices access to chunks of unused airwaves on the broadcast spectrum known as "white spaces" (so-named because they provide a buffer between broadcast channels). Critics of the move fear that a flood of wireless devices, unregulated by the FCC, will interfere with TV programming.

The FCC, which voted unanimously 5-0 to open up white space access, said the move will allow "new and innovative" types of wireless devices—next-generation cell phones and computers, for example—to take advantage of faster broadband connections, the key to better managing streaming video and other large data files.

The agency reassured broadcasters that its decision was contingent upon mobile technology companies incorporating geolocation capabilities into their devices that would bar interference with TV signals. In addition to equipping wireless gadgets with spectrum-sniffing technology, the devices must also be able to access via the Internet a database that confirms which white spaces are available, depending upon the device's location.

"Opening the white spaces will allow for the creation of a WiFi [sic] on steroids," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement after the ruling. He also pointed out that the commission conducted a number of tests to make sure tech companies could accurately sense white spaces, a capability that these companies will now be expected to implement in new wireless devices they sell.

The FCC has since 1994 auctioned off pieces of the broadcast spectrum to companies or individuals for their exclusive use. In March, for example, AT&T and Verizon Wireless paid a combined $16.3 billion for hundreds of licenses that give them rights to use different areas of the spectrum without interference.

The  ruling is considered "a major victory for the big technology companies that lobbied long and hard to open up the white spaces," BBC News reports. Google, Microsoft and Motorola are among the big winners, because they sell the software and mobile devices that will take advantage of the newly available white spaces.

"Motorola looks forward to developing products to market that will help consumers realize the full potential of [white spaces]," Motorola president and co-chief executive officer Greg Brown said in a statement, "including the opportunity to make broadband access, as well as other communication services, available to millions of underserved Americans." Motorola is among the companies whose white-space sensing technology the FCC has been field testing since July 14. Although  its device—actually a rack of equipment that includes a receiver and a small computer with 300 MHz of processing power and one megabyte of memory—clearly impressed the FCC, it was not designed to detect wireless microphone signals.

Wireless mic users (such as Broadway actors, roving TV news reporters and NFL quarterbacks) are concerned that unlicensed white space use by tech companies may interfere with their work. Among those worried: entertainer Dolly Parton, who wrote the music and lyrics for the upcoming Broadway show "9 to 5: The Musical." She even wrote a letter to the FCC last month asking it to delay the decision to give the public more time to comment on the issue,  month reports the Washington Post.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which had lobbied against the move, denounced the decision, charging that it could adversely affect TV viewers. "Every American who values interference-free TV should be concerned by today's Commission vote," NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said in a statement released yesterday. In an attempt to assuage concerns, the FCC has offered to create a database where wireless mic users can register and get the same rights to the spectrum as broadcast TV signals.

What happens if a wireless device disrupts another use of the spectrum? It's unclear. Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, who voted in favor of opening up the white spaces to wireless users, cautioned in a statement that there may be potential problems, because the FCC has not specified the legal responsibilities of providers of the these new unlicensed devices—and what steps will be taken if they fail to meet requirements or interfere with other legit users.

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