FCC move to release 'white spaces' has tech firms dreaming of wireless boom

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By Cecilia Kang
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 8:54 PM

Entire towns linked to the Web as giant hot spots with seamless wireless connections. Internet-connected refrigerators that monitor when it's time to get more milk and eggs.

High-tech firms and engineers are dreaming that the Federal Communication Commission's move to release "white spaces," or unused television channels, later this month will unleash another boom of mobile innovation.

Two decades ago, the FCC released similar airwaves to the public, but no one thought doing so would have much impact for consumers. They were wrong: That band of short-range radio waves spawned baby monitors, garage-door openers and thousands of WiFi hot spots at Starbucks, New York's Times Square and homes across the nation.

Now, the FCC is betting that another batch of unlicensed and better-quality airwaves will enable engineers to turn those frequencies into WiFi networks on steroids. The airwaves would connect longer distances and penetrate through concrete walls - allowing for stronger connections.

For a start, the regulatory move, generally supported by all five commissioners, could help alleviate pressure on overburdened mobile networks that have frustrated some smartphone users who deal with dropped calls and slow Web connections.

Calling the communications technology "super WiFi," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that private carriers are increasingly relying on WiFi hot spots in urban areas to pick up data traffic where their own networks are overburdened. AT&T, for example, has installed many more hot spots in Manhattan, where iPhone users have complained of slow Internet service.

The new waves can be helpful "as an off-load strategy for providers and users to help deal with the spectrum crunch," he said.

Details of the proposed regulatory order haven't been disclosed, and the move faces some opposition from broadcasters, Broadway performers and ministers. Those critics, who have filed suit against the FCC to prevent the release of white spaces, say users of that spectrum could interfere with television channels and would throw off wireless microphones that operate on those frequencies.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the NAB "is working constructively with the FCC in hopes that the agency adopts final white-spaces rules that preserve the ability of local and network broadcasters to deliver interference-free television."

Genachowski's proposal would reserve two television channels in each local market for wireless microphones. News and sports broadcasters, church ministers and singer Dolly Parton have argued to the FCC that they need some spectrum reserved for their wireless microphones.

That provision might not sit well with some high-tech companies that argue that priority for wireless microphones subtracts from precious airwaves that could be used for a new wave of mobile broadband devices and uses.

Google, Microsoft and Dell have long lobbied to use white spaces. They want to use the waves to connect entire universities to the Web with wireless links that use fewer bay stations.

Dell envisions that white spaces will spawn innovations for the home. Consumers could rely on refrigerators that automatically signal the home tablet computer when food is running low, and place an order with the neighborhood grocery. Microsoft hopes to connect more of its devices to information stored on its clusters of data centers - known as cloud computing - to allow access from anywhere to applications such as its Office suite of software.

"No one knew was would happen when WiFi came about, and now we have over 1 billion WiFi chips in every laptop in circulation," said Rick Whitt, telecommunication counsel for Google. "The potential is so vast that we can really leap ahead on what we are doing today."

Microsoft has experimented with its own white-spaces network on its Redmond, Wash., campus, where it is looking at how gadgets perform on the shuttle service between its more than 100 office buildings.

Industry analysts say that even with all the opportunity the spectrum could create, there is still much uncertainty.

First, chipmakers need to develop chips that are compatible with the spectrum qualities. Then, device makers have to update their iPhones and Kindles to allow users to switch to white-space networks.

The idea for the latest release was first introduced six years ago by former FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, whose order was hobbled by broadcasters' lawsuits. Genachowski, besieged by a court order that undermined his ability to regulate broadband and a fierce lobbying campaign against his push for rules, hopes the order will advance his agenda to expand mobile broadband access.

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