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Bills would boost unlicensed Wi-Fi

Senators propose allowing broadband deployment on vacant TV channels, saying it would be cheap and easy to set up.

Wireless Internet service providers would be allowed to operate freely on new chunks of unused TV spectrum, according to two new bills in the U.S. Senate.

A pair of similar measures introduced Friday would give wireless device manufacturers the green light to develop products for unlicensed use on the broadband airwaves' "white spaces"--that is, empty, unused channels in the broadcast TV bands.

Companies interested in deploying Wi-Fi networks covet the bands of spectrum on which broadcast television currently resides because of its inherent scientific properties. Signals at that frequency travel straighter and farther. Consumer advocates say using the spectrum would enable cheaper and easier set-up--and thus more widespread access for rural and low-income areas.

That's one of the major reasons high-tech companies also have been clamoring for entirely. Congress has already mandated that movement--and the nation's transition to all-digital TV broadcasts--must happen by February 2009.

The New America Foundation, an independent think tank that supports freeing up the white space for wireless deployment, estimates that 40 percent to 80 percent of the TV spectrum lies vacant in rural areas and that major metropolises host a fair share of empty spectrum as well.

That organization joined consumer advocates in applauding the bills' introduction. "Opening the white spaces for new and innovative technologies is an essential step toward bridging the digital divide, bringing 21st century telecommunications to rural areas and providing affordable access to all Americans," advocacy groups Consumers Union and Free Press wrote in a letter to the bills' sponsors.

The Federal Communications Commission has already been considering making rules (click here for PDF) to allow unlicensed use of the white space since 2004. But that proceeding has stalled, in part because of concerns expressed by commissioners over potential interference from new devices operating on the spectrum.

"We must be able and ready to conduct independent harmful-interference tests, and to act decisively when harmful interference has occurred," Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement at the time. Other commissioners seemed inclined simply to wait until the digital-television transition is complete.

The politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters has voiced resistance to the idea for similar reasons, arguing that the devices would muddle the reception of over-the-air TV stations. The Consumer Electronics Association said in comments to the FCC last year that its member companies could not reach a consensus as to whether new devices could be introduced to the spectrum without posing interference risks to existing services.

Both new bills would instruct the FCC to move more quickly on concluding those rulemaking procedures. The agency would have to come up with technical rules and guidelines for those operating on the unlicensed spectrum, with an eye toward preventing "harmful interference" from the new devices.

But they differ slightly in their approaches. The American Broadband for Communities Act offered by Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, would involve rewriting telecommunications law to free up only certain portions of the unused spectrum for wireless deployment.

Virginia Republican George Allen's two-page Wireless Innovation Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Democrats John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, and by Republican John Sununu, appears to call for unlicensed wireless activities on any unused piece of the analog TV band.

"At a time when the U.S. is lagging behind much of the world in broadband penetration--and more than 60 percent of the country does not subscribe to broadband service primarily because it is either unavailable or unaffordable--our legislation would put this country one step closer to closing the economic digital divide and achieving ubiquitous broadband Internet access throughout America," Allen said in a statement.