Sorry, Dolly Parton: FCC Releases White Space Spectrum for Wi-Fi on Steroids

Despite the protestations from the likes of Dolly Parton and megachurch pastors, the FCC on Thursday officially released so-called white space” spectrum for unlicensed wireless broadband use. A new Wi-Fi standard is being developed to take advantage of the newly free airwaves a development that will offer big opportunities for service providers to extend their footprints and mine new revenue opportunities.

The spectrum analog territory vacated by the switch to digital television will be used to allow “unlicensed wireless devices to operate in unused parts of TV spectrum,” in order to “create opportunities for investment and innovation in advanced Wi-Fi technologies and a variety of broadband services,” FCC documents read.

The Wi-Fi Alliance recently initiated an industry effort to create a certification program for Wi-Fi devices operating in the TV white spaces. This program will draw on the emerging IEEE 802.11af standard. Also, a company called Full Spectrum is touting its FullMAX platform as perfect for use by carriers in unlicensed TV white spaces.

“Our customers can transmit mission critical smart grid data over the licensed bands and less mission-critical video applications over the TV white spaces,” said a Full Spectrum spokesperson. “FullMAX can transmit up to six times the range of other unlicensed technologies.”

Regardless of technology approach, the ruling is good news for device manufacturers and Internet-everywhere proponents like Google, who claim that using the spectrum for unlicensed wireless Internet will create the opportunity for a pervasive, nationwide layer of Net-neutrality-laden broadband. White spaces “represent a unique opportunity to spark next-generation broadband networks across the country,” Richard Whitt, Google’s telecom and media counsel, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier in the month.

“This new unlicensed spectrum will be a powerful platform for innovation,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said on Sept. 23, characterizing the new services that would be enabled as Wi-Fi on steroids.” The unlicensed white space spectrum operates at a lower frequency than existing Wi-Fi spectrum, meaning that signals can travel longer distances up to three times farther and penetrate walls and buildings much better. New applications will be able to take advantage of this greatly improved range for Wi-Fi, to build large outdoor networks and extend coverage in hospitals, homes, corporate environments and more.

The FCC also expects a standardized hardware ecosystem arise, much as weve seen in the existing Wi-Fi market. In fact, according to a study commissioned by Microsoft last year, white-spaces spectrum could generate between $3.9 billion and $7.3 billion in value annually over 15 years.

“When we unleash American ingenuity, great things happen,” Genachowski said.

Our industry is ready to design a range of innovations leveraging television white spaces, and we are excited for what lies ahead as a result of the Commissions decision today,” said Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa.  Figueroa.  Delivering advanced connectivity using TV white spaces spectrum is another important way for Wi-Fi technology to address consumer and market needs and advance our connected experience.” 

FCC Addresses Interference Concerns

Of course, there are catches to everything, and in this case its the fear of interference. TV station owners, media companies, AM radio stations, the National Association of Broadcasters and anyone with licenses for the spectrum directly adjacent to the white spaces are deeply concerned about bleed-over from the unlicensed Internet services. The NAB went so far as to sue the FCC last year, “on behalf of the millions of American households who rely on broadcast television for entertainment, news and information,” claiming that broadcast quality would be negatively impacted to the point of harming future revenue.

The NAB is not alone in opposing the move. Born-again pastor Joel Osteen sent a letter to the FCC opposing the unlicensed scheme, because his church uses white space for its microphones. And Dolly Parton explained: “As someone who uses the white spaces and knows the value of them for the work that I and many of my friends around the country, I ask the FCC to recognize the entertainment industry’s valuable contribution to the cultural life. I can unequivocally confirm that the importance of clear, consistent wireless microphone broadcasts simply cannot be overstated. This industry relies on wireless technology and is in jeopardy of being irreversibly devastated by the commission’s pending decision.”

To fix the issue Microsoft and the FCC have been using an experimental white-spaces network at the Redmond, Wash., campus to discover the best way to avoid interference; the FCC’s technical conditions require that both fixed and portable devices include geolocation and spectrum-sensing applications, which integrate with the FCC database of venues such as stadiums and concert arenas that use wireless microphones (which require a license). The database also holds TV signal propagation information. Geolocation technology can map a device, while sensors can shut it down if its too near a television station or other services operating in or near the spectrum that should take precedence. The database will also check for other registered devices in the area.

The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology will soon get that database up and running and then select companies to manage the database going forward. Google and Spectrum Bridge have already submitted proposals.

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