FCC To Weigh In On 'White Spaces'

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will likely open the door for what some in the tech industry are calling Wi-Fi on steroids. The FCC is scheduled to vote on unlicensed use of the so-called white spaces between TV channels. Computer companies are pleased. But broadcasters and wireless microphone users are wary about losing control of their spectrum.

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The Federal Communications Commission may soon open the door to what some are calling Wi-Fi on steroids. The FCC is scheduled to vote tomorrow on the use of so-called white spaces. These unused airwaves between TV channels could provide greater broadband access to consumers.

Technology companies are pleased by the prospect of selling devices that will provide the access, but broadcasters, musicians and some microphone manufacturers are less than thrilled, as Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: If youve got a Wi-Fi network in your home or office, you know the signal doesnt always make it through floors and walls.

Ms. LEEANN LUCAS-HELBER: Thats the real cool thing about this technology, that its able to go through the steel in our building.

ROSE: LeeAnn Lucas-Helber is the CEO of Hocking Valley Community Hospital in Logan, Ohio. Her hospital has a new wireless network that goes way beyond the edge of its campus, all the way to the county health department and even to ambulances in the field.

LUCAS-HELBER: Creating a direct link between the field and the hospital that would transmit some data about the condition of the patient in real time.

ROSE: The reason this experimental network is stronger than normal Wi-Fi isnt just the antennas or receivers; it also has to do with the airwaves it uses to transmit data.

The lower frequencies occupied by TV stations are better at passing through walls and other obstacles, so technology companies are eager to start using them to connect phones, laptops and other devices to the Internet.

And Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski wants to help.

Mr. JULIUS GENACHOWSKI (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): What were gonna do is the first significant release of white spaces in over 20 years.

ROSE: TV stations need licenses to use the airwaves. But the FCC wants to open up the so-called white spaces between channels so that tech companies can use them without a license. Genachowski says its the same approach that worked 25 years ago.

Mr. GENACHOWSKI: The FCC put spectrum out that was unlicensed, let innovators innovate, and they developed Wi-Fi. This new unlicensed spectrum will allow super Wi-Fi, broadband access over much larger coverage areas.

ROSE: The FCC first approved new white space rules two years ago, but concerns about interference, well, interfered. Now the agency is poised to vote again on rules that would open white spaces for wider use.

But some thorny technical questions persist. Broadcasters worry that new devices would hurt TV reception. Theyre not the only ones who are nervous.

Unidentified Man: Pass interference, number 84, offense.

Mr. KARL WINKLER (Spokesman, Lectrosonics): Its really not acceptable to be in the middle of a live broadcast and have a glitch.

ROSE: Karl Winkler is a spokesman for Lectrosonics, a company that makes the kind of wireless microphones that pro sports leagues, Broadway theaters and others use. Hes worried that you could be watching your favorite team and miss a crucial call because of interference from white space Wi-Fi.

Mr. WINKLER: Were all for innovation, were all for economic development, but at what cost to the people that have to create the content: sporting institutions and theme parks, churches, touring musicians and so on?

ROSE: FCC officials say theyre receptive to these concerns. The rules the commission will vote on tomorrow reportedly place some white spaces off limits to new devices.

Those rules arent public, but Sascha Meinrath at the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C. think-tank, worries that the FCC will place too many restrictions on white spaces, especially in big cities, where there are more TV stations crowding the dial.

Mr. SASCHA MEINRATH (New America Foundation): So it looks right now like they're prioritizing wireless microphones over broadband connectivity, which means that in many major metropolitan areas throughout the United States, there will be zero white space available, which of course, if youre a manufacturer of white space devices and you cant sell them to people living in, oh, I don't know, the top 10 markets of the United States, thats not a very viable technology to begin with.

ROSE: Its not clear if the FCC can find a compromise that will satisfy all of the competing interests today. But FCC chairman Julius Genachowski says innovators will find ways to use white spaces more efficiently tomorrow.

Mr. GENACHOWSKI: Itll help in ways that we cant completely anticipate, which is the beauty of unlicensed spectrum. This is a platform for innovators to design new products, new services on very robust spectrum for broadband access.

ROSE: But first, the FCC has to convince the old products and services to make room.

For NPR News, Im Joel Rose.

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