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« The Physics of Money | Main | The Other Vote on November 4th »

Act Now for Better Internet Access

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].


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Wireless Services

The FCC should rule against the NAB position. I support the use of this white space for unlicensed use by innovative use of new telecommunications wireless services, and not for artificial safety from interference by broadcast channels.

Mike Oltedal

First think of Fiber as a replacement to the old copper telephone lines.By its nature it can supply a larger more stable connection for whatever use you could think of and some that have yet to be invented. HOWEVER a fiber to the home network does not replace the need for some type of nationwide WIfi or WiMax network. The only way to establish this task nationwide is to make the spectrum available in a open, free to all type of network. If you limit it in any way you would be left with a restricted network that would take a longer time to deliver.
If you look at the technology standing of some "third world countries" they far surpass the USA. The main reason for this is they had nothing at all and were starting from scratch.
We have to replace everything-we had it all- Incumbent carriers have invested a huge amount of money in older technology and refuse to invest all over again. I do not blame them, they have to keep an eye on their bottom line. THE only way we can stay on top is to make sure we support open UNLICENSED use.
Mike Oltedal

Ryan Graves

I agree I think it should be opened!

However, there was a pretty interesting comment on my blog about the health care industry apposing this initiative because of its affect on some health care equipment.
Check it out if you're interested: http://ryanagraves.com/10/24/2008/free-the-airwaves/

Tom Evslin


Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right IMHO. The sprectum WILL eventually be used; what's importnat is to get it in use as open and unlicensed and to do so immediately.

Tom Evslin


Our poor reception in Vermont comes from the same geography which makes it tough to get Internet access over the air. Certainly we are not suffering from any interference now. Urban areas with much less white space "buffer" have much better reception because they have favorable geography.

Fiber vs. radio is a false dichotomy. The Vermont backbone already is fiber although more is needed. Some of our middle mile is fiber and much more will be. Some people get their last mile by fiber and then redistribute it the last few feet in their house by radio (WiFi). The point is that we need all the communications options we can get; leaving these valuable frequencies fallow makes no sense. Auctioning them off won't spur the same innovation nor result in as rapid deployment in rural areas as freeing the spectrum for unlicensed use.

FCC's own engineering staff has validated the technology necessary to avoid interference.

Thanks for commenting.

Tom Evslin


Thanks for the comment and support. Don't forget that today is the deadline for letting the FCC know how you feel and hopefully encouraging your friends to let them know as well.

Mike Oltedal

reply to Craig Kneeland
Craig- I do not think you understand the issues at hand.
The space will be made available,if not now sometime in the future. It may as well go towards a free open to all type of access now. No one supports fiber more than I do It will be the only way to deliver great bandwidth for every service.Looking at the overall issue I have to agree with Tom and Mary keep it free and do it now! Support free airwaves via wifi or wimax running on top of community owned fiber to the home. Let the community own the networks
Mike Oltedal

Craig Kneeland

With the horrible reception of our Vermont tv, we need to keep the "white space", which is actually the separation of signals that can readily interfere with each other. Speaking as an electrical engineer, I have seen the mess that can occur when spurious sidebands cause one comm channel to interfere with another. Let's focus on proper secure bandwidth by supporting the use of fiber for our broadband internet connections.

Annette Robbins

I support the use of this white space for unlicensed use by innovative use of new telecommunications services

Tom Evslin


If you e-sign the petition, it'll help. Hopefully better access is on the way for Windham County

Tom Evslin


Right on. You can help make that happen by e-signing the petition or filing a comment with the FCC if you haven't already.

Tom Evslin


Thanks for signing the petition. It would be nice if we had a president who even understands the issue - no evidence of that from either side yet, unfortunately.

Tom Evslin


Nice to hear from you. If it's UNLICENSED, it'll "be on the side of the people". If it's auctioned off it stays in the hands of th oligarchs.

George Sadowsky

I support the use of this white space for unlicensed use by innovative use of new telecommunications services, and not for artificial safety from interference by broadcast channels. The FCC should rule against the NAB position.

Elizabeth Frye

Windham County is the most under served region in all of Vermont. We are literally in a news blackout..please keep all forms of communication open so when we get out act together it will be there for us!


Thanks to a link from Jeff Pulver - and your post, I am signing an online petition this morning! Thanks for remaining focused on this most important issue -- and, may we have a President who is committed to this cause!

Patrizia Broghammer

"They live by innovation and hope to benefit.."
That IS the point.
Will it be really on the side of the People, or just passing from one hand to the other? Who is going to benefit?
As for the lower cost and higher speed I have my personal doubts.
Having free spectrum doesn't mean that the user will benefit from it.
Rural zones are called in this way because of the lower number of inhabitants.
When the service is shared by few the whole cost is divided among a small number and so it is much more expensive.
Availability is something else.
In this I agree. More users (customers) on the Internet.
THIS is what matters to the ones who will profit from it.
But, as you say, who cares?
It is anyway a step further and very welcome.

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