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Internet Coming to White Space Near You

Wireless service providers will be able to take advantage of the locally unused television RF spectrum known as white space for high-speed Internet access under widely anticipated rules adopted Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission.

"The rules will allow for the use of these new and innovative types of unlicensed devices in the unused spectrum to provide broadband data and other services for consumers and businesses," the commission said in announcing the decision. The decision is part of the reallocation of the radio spectrum in which television broadcasters will be moved to new bands in February and required to use digital signals. Although the bands are allocated to television broadcasters, not all channels are used in all markets.

Although television broadcasters are not using the white space, it is not vacant. That spectrum now is used by the professional audio industry, which uses it for wireless microphones in musical and theatrical performances and for sporting events. A coalition of Nashville-based music interests told the FCC that crowding more devices into the limited space being left by the DTV transition could be a "catastrophe" for live music venues.

The commission said it has taken the concerns of current users into account. "The rules represent a careful first step to permit the operation of unlicensed devices in the TV white spaces and include numerous safeguards to protect incumbent services against harmful interference," the FCC said.

Service providers and consumer equipment manufacturers greeted the decision as a victory for consumers and for U.S. broadband competitiveness.

"By allowing the use of TV white space, the FCC is advancing access to broadband services, especially in rural areas where broadband is more limited," radio manufacturer Motorola Inc. said in a statement.

"The FCC's decision boosts America's high tech sector and promises to stimulate the investment and innovation needed to accelerate broadband deployment, which is critical to near-term economic growth and long-term national competitiveness," the Technology CEO Council said in a statement.

Although devices using white space spectrum will be unlicensed, they will have to be approved by the FCC and be certified in its laboratory. The devices must include a geolocation capability and be able to access over the Internet a database of incumbent services that will tell the device what portions of the spectrum already are in use in that area and what portions it may use. Locations where wireless microphones are used, such as sporting venues and event and production facilities, can be registered in the database to protect their channels. The new devices also will be required to "listen" to the airwaves with spectrum sensing technology to detect wireless microphones and avoid their channels.

The FCC will permit certification of devices without geolocation and database access, but their spectrum sensing capabilities will have to undergo a more rigorous approval process.

"The Commission will closely oversee and monitor the introduction of TV white space devices," the commission said in announcing the rules, and, "will act promptly to remove from the market any equipment found to be causing harmful interference and will require the responsible parties to take appropriate actions to remedy any interference that may occur."

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the commission had been cautious and did extraordinary laboratory testing to ensure that incumbent users would be protected before adopting the new rules.

"For months, both proponents and opponents of opening the white spaces participated in laboratory and field testing conducted by our engineers," Martin said. "Opening the white spaces will allow for the creation of a WiFi on steroids. I fully expect that everything from enhanced home broadband networks, to intelligent peer-to-peer devices, and even small communications networks will come into being in TV 'white spaces.'"

Although approving the new rules, FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate expressed some reservations about possible problems.

"The order is not perfect," she wrote in a partial dissent of the order. "It precludes licensed services and lacks needed language regarding a specific and expedited complaint process for broadcasters, cable providers, wireless microphones and individual users in the case of interference. Nonetheless, the order ultimately may help promote the innovation and investment in advanced services that consumers have come to expect from the communications and technology sector."

Tate praised the work of the FCC 's Office of Engineering and Technology to ensure that technical safeguards against interference would work. Power levels are restricted to 40 milliwatts, much less than that authorized for wireless microphones. There is the possibility that devices used in the home could create interference in home networks, but "the commission does not generally focus on interference that users cause to themselves," she wrote.

About the Author

William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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