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FCC votes to turn empty TV channels into wireless Net access

November 4, 2008 |  2:58 pm

Wireless Internet access is about to undergo its largest ever expansion after federal regulators today approved a controversial plan to allow a new generation of mobile devices to use the empty airwaves between television channels for free Web surfing.

Broadcast tower Dubbed "Wi-Fi on steroids" by its supporters in the high-tech industry, the plan promises to offer free wireless Internet service across America and spur new systems for transmitting video and other data seamlessly between devices in their homes. The plan overcame staunch opposition from the entertainment industry, which is worried about the signals interfering with TV broadcasts and wireless microphones.

Though expected to be slower and possibly less secure than commercial services from cable and phone companies, the new Internet connections would ride on the highest-quality airwaves, able to carry signals long distances and easily penetrate trees and walls.

For decades, those airwaves have been reserved for TV stations. But, hoping to increase high-speed Internet access, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved a plan advocated by public interest groups and technology companies, including Google and Microsoft, to allow the use of the airwaves by new laptops, mobile phones and other gadgets with built-in equipment that's being developed.

The high-tech companies say the white spaces have the potential to provide revolutionary new wireless services that people could use for free, unlike the spectrum leased by the government to cellphone companies, which charge customers to access it. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates personally ...

... lobbied FCC commissioners to open up the white spaces.

These companies will have to build the infrastructure to connect the airwaves to the Internet. Although they charge users for those connections, Google and others are expected to offer them for free, recouping the cost through sales of the special devices and online advertising.

But broadcasters fiercely fought the proposal, warning that the devices could cause some viewers to lose their TV signals because of interference. The issue is of particular concern because broadcasters must switch to all-digital signals in February. With traditional analog TV stations, interference causes static or fuzziness. But broadcasters say digital pictures can freeze or be lost entirely if another signal is broadcast on or near the same channel.

Users of wireless microphones, including sports leagues, musicians and large churches, have also complained about potential interference from the new Internet devices and lobbied against the changes.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps said the white spaces offered great potential for American consumers. At today's meeting in Washington, D.C., he said:

The proponents have argued that we can enable a whole new generation of wireless devices -- bringing new broadband connectivity to our rural and urban communities -- without harming free, over-the-air TV.  Does this seem almost too good to be true?  Of course.  But so did the modern cellular industry, the explosion of Wi-Fi devices and so many other innovations at comparable stages in their development. Even the notion of transmitting high-quality video through the air to millions of TV sets must have seemed pretty fantastical when it was first demonstrated decades ago. This is the history of wireless innovation in a nutshell -- the nearly miraculous becomes commonplace.

The government agency's field tests of early prototype devices provided by Microsoft and other companies produced mixed results, with some of the devices failing to sense and avoid broadcast signals. Broadcasters said those results showed that the technology wasn't ready. But FCC officials said the tests showed that it was possible for devices to use the airwaves without interference, and they believe they have crafted a cautious compromise approach.

The devices will be able to use only channels 21 to 51, where there are fewer TV stations. The FCC will give preference to devices that use global positioning system technology to determine a user's location and then avoid TV channels operating there based on a special database, rather than devices that try  to constantly sense and avoid TV signals. Devices that use sensing technology will have to go through rigorous field testing.

And the FCC will create a safe haven around large sporting and performance venues, such as the Los Angeles Coliseum and New York’s Broadway theater district. The new mobile devices within those safe havens won't have access to channels used by wireless microphones.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: Broadcast tower. Credit: Steve Beger via Flickr

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