September 9th, 2010 | Published in Google Public Policy
On November 4, 2008, as millions of Americans lined up to cast their ballots in a historic presidential election, another important vote was taking place at the Federal Communications Commission. After some six years of careful study, that morning the FCC voted unanimously to open the TV “white spaces” spectrum – the unused airwaves between broadcast TV channels – to unlicensed uses by all Americans.
Two weeks from today, the five current FCC Commissioners will meet to set final technical rules for the white spaces. If it gets the rules right, the Commission will have taken a huge step to put better and faster Internet connections in the hands of the public.
Thanks to their unique range and strength, the TV white spaces are sometimes referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids,” powerful enough to unlock new innovations and applications that simply are not possible over traditional Wi-Fi. Demonstration projects across the country are giving us a small sneak peak of what’s possible with the white spaces – for example, Wilmington, North Carolina, has blanketed its city with wireless Internet access, while Plumas County, California, is running a “smart grid” wireless network. Indeed, one of the great advantages of the white spaces is that ordinary citizens can employ them in a wide variety of ways, without the need to formally apply for (let alone purchase) a spectrum license from the FCC.
In setting the final rules, there are at least two critical issues the FCC needs to address. First, when it comes to interference protection, the Commission should support a geolocation solution. A few opponents of unlicensed white spaces have demanded that the FCC also require a spectrum-sensing solution, a move that would be redundant and expensive, and could severely limit commercial investment. Second, the Commission should establish a reasonable “keep-out” zone for wireless microphones. This will protect the users of authorized wireless microphones, while also allowing white spaces devices to operate in big cities, where spectrum is a coveted resource. Additionally, once the rules are set, the FCC will need to authorize one or more white spaces database administrators.
Google and many others in the tech industry are eager finally to get the green light to start innovating and building new services on these airwaves. From new wireless devices, to better broadband access, to more reliable communications networks for emergency responders, to better-connected classrooms – the white spaces have the potential to spark the next-generation of wireless communications.