FCC: Open up TV waves to wireless

The Federal Communications Commission plans to propose allowing wireless devices, such as Wi-Fi products, to use parts of the TV broadcast spectrum.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read
The Federal Communications Commission is quietly considering opening the television broadcast spectrum for use by other wireless devices, including Wi-Fi products.

The proposal, revealed in a notice of inquiry adopted last month, would allow devices using unlicensed spectrum--bandwidth not licensed to broadcasters--to operate in the TV broadcast spectrum. However, they would tap into only those parts of the TV spectrum not being used and only be allowed to do this when they wouldn't interfere with authorized services.

The Dec. 20 notice will take effect when it is published later this month in the Federal Register, said an FCC representative. At that point, the agency will kick off a 75-day comment period.

The regulatory body is expecting a dogfight from TV broadcasters who in the past have been very protective of their territory--opposition that could derail the proposed changes or delay them.

"We're in for a bit of a bumpy ride," said Alan Scrime, chief of the policy and rules division in the FCC's office of engineering and technology. "TV broadcasters are an influential bunch. We're not expecting this to be a real quick one."

The FCC has been pushing TV broadcasters toward digital television, in order to free up the analog TV spectrum for uses such as wireless home networking technology.

The agency is looking at TV spectrum because it provides significant amounts of bandwidth per channel. In addition, the frequencies and amount of unused TV spectrum varies in different regions, leaving more opportunities for use, according to the notice.

Current 802.11b-based, or Wi-Fi, wireless home networking products operate in the 2.4GHz band and can interfere with other devices--such as cordless phones--in the same band. Expanding the spectrum of unlicensed devices would mitigate many interference issues, and could pave the way for new types of devices that can operate in other bands.

Scrime said that manufacturers have been developing products that can sense when they would interfere with other devices.

The FCC and specifically its chairman, Michael Powell, have promoted the adoption of broadband access by consumers. Wireless home networking technology has been viewed by the regulatory body as a significant complement to broadband, because it makes the service more valuable by allowing multiple consumers to share access wirelessly.

Others in Washington have been promoting the use of Wi-Fi technology. Late Tuesday, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and George Allen, R-Va. proposed the Jumpstart Broadband Act, which would allocate additional radio spectrum for unlicensed use by wireless broadband devices and add wireless technology as a third method of improving the establishment of broadband access.

The notice of inquiry to be published does not specifically identify Wi-Fi wireless home networking technology. However, as technology that uses unlicensed spectrum, Wi-Fi products would get a boost.

Wi-Fi products operate in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, which are unlicensed parts of the radio spectrum. Analog TV stations operate in 6MHz channels and the FCC is targeting the 54MHz to 72MHz, 76MHz to 88MHz, 174MHz to 216MHz and 470MHz to 806MHz bands.

"Wi-Fi should benefit, if this comes to pass," Scrime said.

The point of the notice and similar efforts by the FCC are to make more efficient use of the radio spectrum, as wireless devices become more popular among manufacturers and consumers.

"The FCC wants to encourage the sharing of spectrum and take advantage of it when it's not being used, as long as there is not interference," Scrime said. "Long term, we want to make sure there is enough of it available so that it isn't crowded to the point where it doesn't work."