FCC opens free 'white space' spectrum

The FCC unanimously approves rules that will open unused broadcast TV spectrum known as "white spaces" for unlicensed use.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

Google and other technology companies that wanted access to more free spectrum have gotten their wish.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously agreed to open up unused broadcast TV spectrum for unlicensed use.

Despite protests from TV broadcasters, entertainers, professional sports leagues, church pastors, and some congressional leaders, the FCC approved rules for devices using spectrum that sits between broadcast TV channels. This 300MHz to 400MHz of unused spectrum known as "white spaces" is considered prime spectrum for offering wireless broadband services because it can travel long distances and penetrate through walls.

"As an engineer, I was really gratified to see that the FCC decided to put science over politics," Larry Page, co-founder of Google, said on his blog. "For years the broadcasting lobby and others have tried to spread fear and confusion about this technology, rather than allow the FCC's engineers to simply do their work."

Technology companies such as Google, Motorola, Microsoft, and Dell have been lobbying the FCC for years to open this spectrum for unlicensed use. The hope is that the spectrum could be used to augment existing wireless services or eventually be used to create new wireless broadband services.

Page, who has been a strong advocate for opening white spaces, applauded the FCC 's move and said it would spur massive technological innovation.

"We will soon have 'Wi-Fi on steroids' since these spectrum signals have much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations resulting in better coverage at lower cost," he said. "And it is wonderful that the FCC has adopted the same successful unlicensed model used for Wi-Fi, which has resulted in a projected 1 billion Wi-Fi chips being produced this year. Now that the FCC has set the rules, I'm sure that we'll see similar growth in products to take advantage of this spectrum."

But TV broadcasters and wireless microphone companies have long opposed the use of this spectrum, saying it will interfere with their services. In the past few weeks, these opponents, along with several congressional leaders, have urged the FCC to allow more public comments before the vote would take place. It came as little surprise that these groups were unhappy with the FCC's rules.

"While we appreciate the FCC's attempt to address significant issues raised by broadcasters and others, every American who values interference-free TV should be concerned by today's commission vote," Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement. "By moving the 'white space' vote forward, the commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television."

The FCC, which has been examining this issue for six years, finished testing several proof-of-concept devices this summer to see if companies can develop products that use buffer spectrum between licensed broadcast channels. The commission's Office of Engineering Technology (OET) found that sensing technology alone was not 100 percent effective in preventing interference. But when coupled with geolocation technology, which uses GPS technology along with a data base of known services using certain spectrum channels, interference was greatly reduced.

The commission took these recommendations into account when establishing its rules, which will require fixed and portable unlicensed devices to include geolocation technology in addition to spectrum-sensing technology. For some low-power devices that do not use geolocation technology and use sensing technology exclusively, the FCC said it will require a much more rigorous approval process.

The FCC said it also had addressed issue for wireless microphone manufacturers and their customers. For example, the FCC said that locations where wireless microphones are used, such as sporting venues and event and production facilities, can be registered in the geolocation data base and will be protected in the same way as other services. And even though sensing technology isn't completely full-proof, the commission is requiring that devices use sensing technology to see if wireless microphones are being used in the same spectrum bands.

In addition to these rules, the FCC will require that all white space devices be tested and certified by the FCC Laboratory, just as they require testing and certification of all other wireless devices, including cell phones and wireless routers.

During the meeting, the FCC commissioners noted that Tuesday's vote was only the beginning. And they tried to assure the public that they would continue to listen to concerns of broadcasters and wireless microphone manufacturers and users to ensure that interference issues were mitigated.