Finding Use for the Airwaves' 'White Spaces'
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The Federal Communications Commission has spent nearly a year testing devices designed to use empty television channels, known as white spaces, for high-speed Internet service. As those tests near conclusion, the agency is evaluating yet another proposal about the best use of the airwaves.
Technology giants such as Google, Microsoft and Motorola want the FCC to let them use vacant channels without licensing to provide cheap wireless broadband. But TV broadcasters and wireless microphone makers are opposed, saying multiple companies using the same white space could mean more interference for their broadcasts.
Qualcomm, a wireless chip maker, and CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying association in Washington, are calling for the airwaves to be auctioned off and licensed. Qualcomm said licensing the airwaves will ensure wider coverage and protection from interference, and auctioning the spectrum would raise money for the government as well.
"Unlicensed spectrum is great for short-range coverage, like WiFi in a house. But if you want to cover all of Washington, you need licensed spectrum in order to make sure a transmitter is protected from interference," said Dean Brenner, Qualcomm's vice president for government affairs.
The spectrum in question can carry signals across long distances and can penetrate walls, making it ideal for providing wireless broadband service, particularly in rural areas. An alliance of tech firms, including Philips and Dell, are pushing for the spectrum to be unlicensed, hoping it will spur development of new wireless devices. But unlicensed spectrum is getting crowded, as it has been used to power WiFi hotspots, cordless phones, garage-door openers and Bluetooth technology.
Licensing the spectrum would give a company, or a group of companies, the rights to control the airwaves, prohibiting other firms from tapping in. CTIA said licensing would ensure signals are not interrupted as they cross long distances.
"There's high demand for licensed spectrum," said Paul Garnett, CTIA's assistant vice president of regulatory affairs. Two of the group's members, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, spent billions for licenses to airwaves at a recent FCC auction, which raised $19 billion.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the most vocal opponent of the plan offered by the tech companies, said licensing the airwaves may protect broadcasts from static.
"It's certainly something worth exploring, rather than introducing potentially millions of TV viewers to unlicensed interference," said Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president.
The plan is getting attention from some lawmakers. This month, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin asking him to consider licensing some or all of the spectrum.
Martin said the agency is analyzing Qualcomm's proposal to be sure the spectrum is used efficiently without impacting technologies already in use. "We're trying to take a thorough and reasonable approach," he said.
The FCC is also testing "beacon" technology designed to provide interference protection for wireless microphones, which currently use the spectrum without licensing to put on concerts and sports events.
The tech companies pushing for an unlicensed regime say assigning licenses would limit the use of a service to customers of a single company, rather than being available to a variety of devices, such as those that connect to WiFi networks.
"The pro of licensing is that it would bring money to the Treasury," said Carol Mattey, managing director of Deloitte & Touche's telecommunications group. "The con is that it potentially stifles the creativity that may occur more freely in an unlicensed environment."
Broadcasters already have licenses to use the airwaves, and Martin said licensing the adjacent airwaves may not be practical.
"Our engineers may decide we might not be able to fit another license between those stations," he said. "But I'm interested in hearing more about the proposal."