UPDATE: It happened. The FCC voted to open up the whitespaces for UNLICENSED USE (full post here).
There's a good chance that on November 4th the FCC'll do something really good to improve Internet and mobile phone access in the US: on that day the Commission is planning on voting on regulations to open huge swatches of idle but extremely valuable radio spectrum for open UNLICENSED use. There's also a very good chance that special interests will succeed in delaying and/or killing this long overdue action. Your input to the FCC PRIOR TO TUESDAY'S FRIDAY'S [it's been extended] DEADLINE FOR PUBLIC COMMENT could make a difference (simple way to comment provided by Google here if you're already convinced).
The spectrum in question is the so-called TV white spaces: the radio frequencies between existing TV stations. Some spectrum in this band exists in every part of the country, more in rural areas. Vermont's Public Service Department and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority filed in favor of opening up the white space back in March. Here's a quote from their ex parte filing to the FCC:
"First, rural areas like Vermont have relatively fewer TV broadcasters and therefore more unused 'white spaces.' Moreover, rural communities also have the largest geographic areas without access to wireless services. Second, the ability of TV frequencies to propagate over great distances and difficult terrain provides an opportunity to reach locations too economically challenging for existing wireless services. Third, the use of TV 'white space' for the provision of rural broadband is an alternative means of accomplishing the Commission's universal service goal of deploying advanced services to all areas of the nation without requiring additional funding mechanisms. In fact, the use of TV 'white space' could actually decrease the demand for universal service funding at a time when the level of funding is facing heightened scrutiny."
So who could be against such goodness? The principal opponent to the use of these frequencies is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Their ostensible reason for opposition is technical: they're afraid, they say, that use of these frequencies, particularly the open unlicensed use being proposed to the FCC by Chairman Kevin Martin will interfere with adjacent use by TV stations. In their recent filing advocating delay they propose that even more time be allocated for study despite the fact that this docket's been open since 2004 and that the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology recently reported its technical finding that interference is an issue which can be dealt with by current technology.
It's important to remember that, although this unused a spectrum is referred to as "TV white space", none of it has been paid for by any broadcaster or will be used for any broadcast purpose after the digital cutover this February. It is also extremely unlikely that any more over the air TV stations will pop up and want to occupy this space; and, even if that did, happen, the current proposal would make room for them since it requires that all equipment used in this space avoid broadcast signal – even if the broadcast signal shows up after the equipment is in use.
So why are the broadcasters so concerned? Well now, let's suppose that much of this spectrum was used to deliver low cost, high speed Internet access. Suppose that people used this Internet access to obtain their entertainment on the Internet rather than from said broadcasters. Now wouldn't that be a fine kettle of fish?
It is, in fact, highly likely that a vast array of new services including Internet access at a lower cost and higher speeds than we've so far seen in the US (or the world) will appear if this spectrum is opened for unlicensed use (eg. not auctioned off for proprietary networks). Think of the huge innovation that's occurred in WiFi and Bluetooth which operate in unlicensed spectrum even though these technologies share just scraps of undesirable spectrum with microwave ovens and cordless phones. BTW, devices like your WiFi hub ARE licensed to assure they respect other users of the spectrum; but YOU don't need a license to use WiFi nor does a WiFi-based service provider. More on how the white spaces can make a huge difference to the whole US economy here.
Traditional carriers are also opposed to having you make unlicensed use of spectrum. They would rather that you get your mobile access and Internet access through their proprietary leased spectrum.
Anyway, suppose that opponents manage to get another delay. At the end of that delay Kevin Martin (with whom I certainly don't always agree) is no longer head of the FCC. It IS Kevin Martin, to his credit, who is the leading advocate of all this openness with the FCC. Someday an enlightened FCC or Congress will probably take this action anyway – but it's likely to be a long time from now if we miss this opportunity.
Technology companies like Google and Microsoft are in favor of unlicensed use of the white spaces. Their motives are also commercial – nothing wrong with that. They live by innovation and hope to benefit from the communication opportunities that will open up. Google's Android phone is particularly suited for an open environment. In this case we're lucky to have their lobbying muscle on the "right" side of this issue. The NAB and the telcos are fearsome lobbyists. Moreover, the broadcasters are very influential with politicians who, you may have noticed, like to be broadcast.
Rick Whitt, who is Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, writes in the Google Public Policy Blog: "Just as Wi-Fi sparked a revolution in the way we connect to the web, freeing the "white space" airwaves could help unleash a new wave of technological innovation, create jobs, and boost our economy. But it can happen only if the FCC moves forward with rules that make the best possible use of this spectrum."
He points to an online petition at freetheairwaves.com whose wording you can use or change in order to make your views known to the FCC. If you would prefer, you can also comment directly on the FCC docket by going to http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/upload_v2.cgi and typing the docket number 04-186 in the first box. My comment should show up Monday.
Please comment right away. THE DEADLINE is TUESDAY, October 28th[extended to Friday, Oct. 31, 5:30PM ET].