Unused Digital TV Channels Could Increase U.S. Wireless Access
Federal action could allow unused channels at lower frequencies to be used for unlicensed wireless networks.

Eric S. Crouch, Medill News Service
PC World
Saturday, November 19, 2005 12:10 AM

One luxury of living or working in a big city is access to high-speed wireless Internet connections that may not be available in rural areas of the United States. But increased access to wireless networks may be just around the corner.

Before the end of the year, the House is expected to consider a provision proposed by Representative Jay Inslee (D-Washington) that would force the Federal Communications Commission to decide whether "white spaces"--empty broadcast-TV channels--should be made available for use by unlicensed wireless networks.

"[This provision] is a win for public safety and for consumer choice," says a spokesperson for Inslee. "By freeing up the spectrum, we're going to spur technological innovation and economic growth."

With both the House and the Senate having recently passed bills requiring television broadcasts to switch from analog to digital sometime in early 2009, the 700-MHz band (channels 52 to 69) will be cleared of programming and moved to lower frequencies (channels 2 to 51). The 700-MHz band will be set aside for public-safety emergency transponders and for bidding by wireless networks.

According to the New America Foundation , the average TV market in the United States uses approximately 7 high-power channels of the 67 that it is allocated. This leaves an abundance of free channels that could be used for wireless access.

"The great propagation characteristics [of low frequencies], coupled with innovative antenna technology, could bring broadband to rural America," says Mary L. Brown, senior telecommunications policy counsel for Cisco Technologies.

The New America Foundation calls the current 2.4-GHz band used for Wi-Fi access "small and uneconomical."

The FCC has proposed a plan to allocate white space, but the broadcast industry is worried that propagation of unlicensed devices has not proved interference-free and may compromise communication among public-safety transponders.

"This requires you to be extremely prescient as a regulator to get rules right in the first place, and it shifts the burden to entities already in the band," says David Donovan, president of Maximum Service Television . "Public safety cannot be the guinea pig for this new technology."

The issue of white-space allocation has not been considered by the Senate.FCC Chair Kevin Martin states in the commission's release on the issue, ET Docket No. 04-186: "While I am pleased that this proceeding has the potential to encourage new and innovative unlicensed services, I remain concerned about the proceeding's impact on the broadcasters and their transition to digital television." A PDF of Martin's full statement is available .

Donovan also urges a cautious approach.

"If this [technology] works, build it and let's test it before we put it in a bandwidth with a high potential for interference," he says.

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