Buried in the fervor and chaos of Election Day was a unanimous vote by the FCC to approve the use of wireless devices in locations of unused broadcast television spectrum. This unused airspace is commonly referred to as "white space." By opening up the unused spectrum for use by new white-space broadband devices, the FCC hopes to provide connectivity that Chairman Kevin Martin refers to as "Wi-Fi on steroids."
The move by the FCC is designed to improve wireless connectivity, especially in rural areas, and create greater competition in the broadband market. With Sprint, Motorola, Google and Microsoft stumbling over themselves to create new white-space devices to compete with current broadband services, consumers stand to benefit significantly from open market competition when the devices are scheduled to hit store shelves in two years.
As with any great offer, there is a catch. Many businesses are concerned that the unlicensed devices will interfere with their digital TV channels and wireless microphones. Sporting venues, concert halls and even churches could face substantial interference from the new white-space broadband devices. White-space opponents argue the FCC has failed to demonstrate due diligence with respect to the effect that unlicensed devices will have on current venues and businesses.
While the FCC approval may not assuage all of the fears of wireless microphone users or TV broadcasters, the FCC's Second Report and Order did enumerate restrictions on the use of the white-space devices. Unlicensed devices are required to have geolocation functionality, similar to GPS, in order to detect spectrum locations that are already being used. All white-space devices must be able to access to an Internet database containing the locations of business or venues that use certain spectrum locations. In other words, if Madison Square Garden officials are concerned that these new devices will interfere with Knicks' games or a Justin Timberlake concert, they need only provide the FCC with their geolocation and the location of wireless microphones on the spectrum.
Problem solved, right? Not exactly. The geolocation technology tested in real-time before the FCC vote largely failed to accurately detect channels already in use. The new guidelines required for white-space broadband devices by the FCC will mean nothing if the technology doesn't exist to uphold the standards. Moreover, the FCC allows for companies to design white-space devices without geolocation capability so long as they apply for FCC certification. These devices will supposedly be able to sense what parts of the spectrum are busy and will move elsewhere to avoid interference. Little consolation to the current users of wireless microphones and TV broadcast stations. The FCC order, however, does state that noncompliant devices with be subject to a "much more rigorous approval process." The standards of this strict scrutiny test are not explained or even mentioned in the Nov. 4 order.
The FCC approval of white-space use will benefit many computer and cell-phone companies and, hopefully, consumers as well. Rural areas stand to gain the most from new wide-reaching white-space towers. However, unless the FCC and the tech companies follow through on their promise to protect already existing users of the spectrum, consumers may be sacrificing the ability to hear concerts, watch TV, and listen to their favorite team just for the luxury of downloading the hottest new album from iTunes at twice the speed.