FCC Expands Use of Airwaves

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin says
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin says "white space devices" can be used safely. (Isaac Brekken - AP)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Preachers on the pulpit, Guns N' Roses and others who fear their wireless microphones would be disrupted by widespread public access to certain unused airwaves were drowned out by high-tech titans Google and Microsoft in a federal ruling yesterday.

The Federal Communications Commission approved a plan that would allow those airwaves, called white spaces, to be used by gadgets such as cellphones and laptops connected to the Internet once that spectrum becomes available after the national transition from analog to digital television in February.

Opponents of the plan, including preachers and entertainers, say such devices could interfere with broadcast channels on nearby spectrum and with wireless microphones, which are used in live performances and operate on the same frequencies. The plan's proponents, including Google and Microsoft, say it would open more wireless technologies to consumers.

After a five-hour delay of its public meeting as commissioners wrangled over last-minute details, the agency also approved Verizon Wireless's merger with rural carrier Alltel, and Sprint Nextel's merger with wireless broadband provider Clearwire.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have personally lobbied FCC commissioners on the airwave issue, saying that use of the valuable radio waves -- which can penetrate buildings -- could unleash a wave of innovation in wireless technology. The high-tech firms liken the spectrum to WiFi on steroids and say that the industry will benefit as more people use the spectrum to surf the Web and as they buy smartphones, digital music and video players, laptops and other devices that connect to the networks.

"White spaces are the blank pages on which we write our broadband future," said Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein during the meeting. "Let's hope this is not just WiFi on steroids but WiFi on amphetamines as well because it will be that fast."

Public interest groups lauded the decision, saying the use of white spaces would provide an alternative to what is being offered by telecom giants AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

"This means that by Christmas 2010, I'll be able to go into a Best Buy and will have more things to choose from that are faster, better and cheaper than what's available now," said Ben Scott, policy director at public interest group Free Press.

But a wide and varied group of critics, including broadcast executives, Broadway producers, The Walt Disney Co. and ministers, warn that the use of unlicensed portable devices on that spectrum could cause interference on broadcast channels and wireless microphones used for sermons, university lectures and live performances.

That's where Dolly Parton comes in. About to open in the Broadway show "9 to 5: The Musical," she wrote to Chairman Kevin J. Martin and the other four FCC commissioners on Oct. 24, asking them to delay yesterday's vote to allow comment on the issue.

"With my extensive background in the entertainment industry, I can unequivocally confirm that the importance of clear, consistent wireless microphone broadcasts simply cannot be overstated," Parton wrote.

Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Hewlett-Packard said the FCC's office of engineering had tested devices and found no real interference, even as dozens of lawmakers pushed the agency to allow for comment on the proposal and a more thorough review of the FCC's findings.

"Normally, the Commission adopts prospective rules about interference and then certifies devices to ensure they are in compliance," Martin said in a statement. "Here, we took the extraordinary step of first conducting this extensive interference testing in order to prove the concept that white space devices could be safely deployed."

Also approved after last-minute wrangling over details were one merger that would consolidate the cellphone industry and another that could provide an alternative broadband wireless competitor.

The agency approved Verizon's $28.1 billion purchase of Alltel, which would form the nation's largest cellphone operator, with 83.8 million subscribers. AT&T has 74.9 million customers. Martin said the four other commissioners were negotiating down to the wire the roaming conditions attached to the merger.

Public interest groups had balked at the merger, saying it would hurt consumers by providing them with fewer choices of carriers and possibly higher prices.

As part of final negotiations, Verizon expanded its agreement with rural carriers on roaming. Previously, it said it would maintain roaming agreements with rural carriers that use Alltel's networks for the remainder of customers' contracts or for two years, whichever is longer. Under the final order, Verizon will maintain those contracts for four years or the remainder of customers' contracts, whichever is longer. Public interest groups had suggested that Verizon over time would raise the rates it charges the rural carriers to roam on its network.

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