AWS-3, white spaces clear initial hurdles but will they survive?

The FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) issued two major reports within days of each other that pave the way for free wireless broadband services and unlicensed wireless devices in the white-space spectrum. Will these initiatives ever see the light of day?

The OET yesterday released a report stating white-space devices with geolocation and sensing technologies could be used with some conditions without interference to existing surrounding users such as television broadcasters and wireless microphones. (See today's top story). FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is now pushing the concept with an FCC vote set for Nov. 4.

Last week, the OET released a report tentatively concluding that services operating in the proposed AWS-3 band can co-exist with T-Mobile's WCDMA network that uses the adjacent AWS-1 band "without a significant risk of harmful interference." The FCC wants to auction the 2155-2180 MHz band to support a nationwide license with the ambition to require the licensee to dedicate 25 percent of its network capacity to free broadband service and allow open access to third-party devices and applications.

White-space devices, designed to use the unused slivers of spectrum in the 700 MHz band between spectrum used by broadcast TV stations on an unlicensed basis, are commercially unproven and heavily opposed by broadcasters that fear interference from them. The proposed AWS-3 license stipulations push a business model that many question.

I applaud Chairman Martin for pursuing these initiatives to spur broadband access and competition, even though I wonder if they will succeed in the market. That's how innovation works--by taking risks. Still, it seems like so many factors may keep these plans from reaching fruition in the first place. For one, opponents will pick apart the FCC's interference tests, especially since T-Mobile performed its own interference tests--identical to the FCC's--that showed potential problems. T-Mobile recently reminded the FCC it has a legal obligation to protect AWS-1 licensees from potential interference. I anticipate lawsuits.

Many attending the FCC's testing sessions of white-space devices concluded none performed without causing interference. And the wording from the OET's report insinuates that maybe there is a more limited opportunity for the devices than previously hoped for by the likes of Google, Microsoft and others. The OET states devices equipped with geolocation and sensing technologies could be used with "some" conditions.

Meanwhile, I find it hard to believe the FCC can effectively move on these ideas before the end of the year, a critical move as a new administration and Congress come on the scene in 2009. What if a new FCC is appointed that isn't as keen as Martin is on taking risks?--Lynnette