FCC takes steps to free up wireless spectrum

The FCC took important steps this week to open up white space spectrum and also reallocate satellite spectrum for terrestrial 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

The Federal Communications Commission took two important steps this week to free up more wireless spectrum for wireless broadband services.

On Wednesday the agency published a list of nine companies that have been granted permission to provide a database of unlicensed "white space" spectrum that can be used by device makers and service providers to offer a service that utilizes these free airwaves.

And also on Wednesday the FCC approved an order to allow a privately funded company called LightSquared to lease spectrum that was originally allocated for satellite services to use in building a terrestrial wireless service. LightSquared will use the spectrum to build a high-speed Internet network from satellite feeds. The service is aimed at companies, such as Apple and Best Buy that may want to offer mobile devices without partnering with major carriers.

Wireless experts say that more spectrum is needed to fuel the growing demand of rich services and content from consumers. The FCC has been talking about the impending spectrum crisis and has been pushing for more spectrum to be made available. In the National Broadband Plan presented to Congress last year, the agency outlined a plan for freeing up 500MHz of spectrum over the next decade, with 300MHz being freed up within five years.

The agency expects to get the spectrum from various places, including some from TV broadcasters, which are no longer using spectrum that has been allocated to them. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed a voluntary auction in which broadcasters could give up spectrum in exchange for sharing in the profits of the auction with the government. The FCC report indicates that spectrum could be worth more than $120 billion at auction, which is twice what excess spectrum was worth in 2008.

The white space spectrum as well as reallocating spectrum that is set aside for other uses is another way to free additional spectrum. And each of the orders the agency issued yesterday with respect to wireless spectrum will help do that.

The "white space" spectrum is 300MHz to 400MHz of unused spectrum that has been used previously as buffers between TV channels. The FCC opened up the spectrum for unlicensed use and looked to private companies to maintain a database of spectrum users.

Companies, such as Microsoft and Dell are already developing products to use the spectrum. In order to prevent interference, a database is needed so that devices can search for unused white spectrum in different markets.

Google is one of nine companies that has won the FCC's approval to build and manage these data bases. Other companies that will also be able to do this are Comsearch, Frequency Finder, KB Enterprises and LS Telcom, Key Bridge, Neustar, Spectrum Bridge, Telcordia Technologies and WSdb. These companies will compile a database that shows frequencies are available in given areas. And then the companies will approve devices for use in those areas.

Because the white space spectrum is unlicensed, it will allow new players to more easily enter the wireless market. So rather than large cell phone companies or even cable companies, which have spent millions of dollars on wireless spectrum licenses, smaller companies could build a service around the unlicensed spectrum.

Google's involvement with the database is important because the company has been pushing to free up this spectrum for years. Some critics have been skeptical about Google's involvement. They warned that Google might unfairly use information made available to the database administrators, But the FCC didn't seem to feel these concerns were enough to keep Google from administering a database.

Google's Android software will likely be used in several devices that take advantage of the white space spectrum.

The databases won't be active for several weeks. Companies that have been approved as administrators have until February 28 to submit additional information about their databases. And on March 10 the FCC will hold a workshop to review the agency's rules. There will then be a 45-day trial period for each database administrator. If the companies pass the trial, they'll be able to operate their database for five years.

The FCC has asked all administrators to submit additional information about their database plans by Feb. 28 and attend a March 10 workshop to go over the agency's rules. Administrators will then undergo a 45-day trial period. If they pass the trial, they will be able to operate their databases for five-year terms.