FCC order on airwaves is victory for tech giants

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved the use of unlicensed airwaves in what it hopes will be a new market for high-speed Internet connections for smartphones, tablets and computers.

The order, approved unanimously by the five-member commission, is a win for high-tech giants Dell, Microsoft and Google, which have lobbied for the use of the airwaves known as "white spaces." Those are parts of the broadcast spectrum that sit between television channels, and are valued as a potential home for amped-up versions of WiFi networks with longer ranges and stronger connections that can penetrate walls.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski touted the decision as part of his effort to significantly extend broadband connections in the United States. The order was introduced and passed under then-Chairman Kevin J. Martin two years ago but got hung up with a lawsuit brought by broadcasters, church ministers and Nashville's Dolly Parton, who argued that those airwaves could interfere with wireless microphones and nearby television channels.

"This new unlicensed spectrum will be a powerful platform for innovation," Genachowski said during the meeting. "And as we've seen time and again, when we unleash American ingenuity, great things happen."

He noted that the last time the FCC granted the use of unlicensed spectrum 20 years ago, those microwave frequencies propelled the use of wireless technology in devices such as baby monitors and garage door openers. The frequencies were also converted into the thousands of WiFi hotspots that provide Web connections to laptops and smart phones on the Mall, in New York's Times Square, and in tens of thousands of homes and public places.

Microsoft commissioned a report last year that estimates white spaces would generate $4 billion in annual revenue for device makers and Internet service providers.

The FCC tried to appease groups that oppose the use of white spaces by rewriting technical details of the order for Thursday's vote that specify the engineering of devices to ensure they do not interfere with broadcast channels. And the FCC said it would reserve two channels on the lower range of the spectrum, for wireless microphones.

Dennis Wharton, vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the trade group is still reviewing the order, which had not been made public in its entirety as of Thursday afternoon.

"NAB's overriding goal in this proceeding has been to ensure America's continued interference-free access to high-quality news, entertainment and sports provided by free and local television stations," Wharton said.

Also Thursday, the agency eased rules for schools and libraries to use federal funds for broadband services. The FCC said those institutions could lease unused fiber networks that can carry Internet services. Internet service providers such as AT&T have said that the federal funds should be used to buy services from companies like theirs, not for fiber lines owned by municipalities.

During a news briefing after the meeting, Genachowski said he hopes Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) succeeds in creating a bill that would give the agency authority to enforce guidelines that forbid broadband carriers from blocking devices on their networks and force them to transmit all Web content at equal speeds.

The agency, which has delayed its own push for "net neutrality" rules, is grappling with its authority to regulate Internet access providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. A federal court in March said the agency's regulatory authority was questionable and that it overstepped when it sanctioned Comcast for allegedly blocking peer-to-peer application BitTorrent.

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