FCC Will Vote On Wireless Internet Access
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A political battle with major implications for the future of the country is looming. We're speaking, of course, about the Federal Communications Commission's vote tomorrow on whether to open up the broadcast airwaves to deliver high-speed wireless Internet access. Tech companies like the idea, but they're facing opposition from some broadcasters, religious leaders, and entertainers, as Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: Allen Orivits(ph) lives on the top of a mountain in western North Carolina. He moved here for the natural beauty, but there are some things about the country life Orivits does not like.
Mr. ALLEN ORIVITS: OK. You're about to hear the most frustrating and irritating sound in rural America.
(Soundbite of dial-up modem)
ROSE: Orivits uses a dial-up modem to connect to the Internet when he does research for his consulting business. Orivits says he'd be happy to pay for a faster connection like cable or DSL, but they're not available. When Orivits has big files to download, he drives 12 miles into town to use to the Wi-Fi at the coffee shop.
Mr. ORIVITS: I just keep waiting and hoping every day that Verizon or a local telco is going to say, OK, DSL is available.
ROSE: Orivits is one of an estimated 20 million Americans who are still using dial-up, and the vast majority live in rural areas. He says it's more than just an inconvenience.
Mr. ORIVITS: It's just extremely problematic for small businesses and individuals to get the information they need and to communicate with their customers in their market.
ROSE: Not far from Orivits is a man who thinks he has the answer. Wally Bowen runs the Mountain Area Information Network, a nonprofit Internet service provider based in Asheville, North Carolina. He says that in February, the nation's TV stations will switch from analogue to digital broadcasts. Since the new signals will be more efficient, there will be lots of what are called white spaces between the channels. Bowen and others want to use those empty airwaves to deliver high-speed wireless Internet access.
Mr. WALLY BOWEN (Founder and Executive Director, Mountain Area Information Network): Broadcasters will only be using about 30 percent of their allocation, which leaves a very powerful, efficient spectrum with which we can basically solve the rural broadband problem.
ROSE: Bowen says the service would be like Wi-Fi, only a lot stronger. Engineers for the Federal Communications Commission released a report several weeks ago saying the technology basically works. But that report hasn't convinced Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Mr. DENNIS WHARTON (Senior Vice President, National Association of Broadcasters): There's a very brief executive summary which finds that everything is going to work well. But if you actually read the full 400-page report, which is quite dense, it raises some serious questions about the potential for interference.
ROSE: Broadcasters are pressuring the FCC to allow time for public comment before voting on the proposal, and they're not alone. Broadway producers, pro sports leagues, religious leaders, and entertainers from Guns 'n Roses to Dolly Parton are also calling for a delay. They're concerned that Internet use would interfere with wireless microphones which also use white spaces. But the FCC has some powerful allies.
Mr. ED THOMAS (Tech Advisor, White Spaces Coalition): This thing has been studied more than almost any other technology that I know of.
ROSE: Ed Thomas is a former chief engineer at the FCC. Now he represents a group of tech companies known as the White Spaces Coalition, which includes Microsoft and Google. Thomas says the broadcasters had plenty of time to put their concerns on the record.
Mr. THOMAS: They've had over four years. This is a delaying tactic. Its intent is to wait to a new administration and then God knows what other requests they would make.
ROSE: Advocates for rural broadband don't want to wait to find out. Publicly the FCC says it will go ahead with tomorrow's vote. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.