TV white space industry wins last-minute reprieve

Supporters of TV white spaces for unlicensed use breathed a sigh of relief when last week's payroll tax extension bill passed both houses of Congress, because it meant their vision of unlicensed broadband service still has a future.

"There will absolutely be unlicensed TV white space everywhere in the country, which is what we needed to keep developers investing in the technology," Harold Feld, legal director of advocacy group Public Knowledge, wrote in the group's policy blog.

Specifically, the final bill allows the FCC to create bands of unlicensed white space spectrum that could be used for wireless broadband applications. That's a reversal from earlier drafts of the bill, which would have prohibited the FCC from allocating any unlicensed spectrum in the TV white spaces.

President Barack Obama, speaking at an event outside Seattle last Friday, promised to sign the bill immediately upon his return to the White House.

Much attention has been focused on spectrum auction provisions of the bill, which pundits have said could generate $16 billion to $25 billion from the auction of TV broadcasters' spectrum. The cash would be partly be used to offset the cost of extending unemployment benefits in the payroll-tax-extension legislation. TV broadcasters that voluntarily give up their spectrum for the incentive auction would receive as much as $1.75 billion in auction proceeds in return. Public safety officials would get a block of spectrum worth around $3 billion and auction proceeds of around $7 billion in order to build a nationwide, interoperable communications network

White space supporters say the innovation enabled by unlicensed spectrum use could have an even bigger impact than licensed spectrum use. They point to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as examples of technologies that have thrived on unlicensed frequencies.

Unlicensed spectrum is "a public resource that drives economic growth and spurs technological innovation," said Matt Wood, policy director for the Action Fund at Free Press, another advocacy group.

"Unlicensed spectrum is vital for Internet companies building tomorrow's technologies and rural providers bringing broadband to unserved portions of the nation. And it's also increasingly important for incumbent providers such as AT&T and Verizon. Efficient unlicensed spectrum technologies such as Wi-Fi already handle more than one-third of the data generated by smartphone users, as well as 90 percent of the traffic from iPads and other tablets," Wood said in a statement.

But exactly how the FCC will manage new TV white spaces is still undetermined. Feld noted that the bill makes clear the FCC can have guard bands when it designs the new wireless service from reclaimed broadcast spectrum, and it can put unlicensed spectrum into those guard bands. However, much depends upon TV broadcasters and whether they are willing to sell off their spectrum, which could actually reduce the amount of white space because that broadcast spectrum could then be put to non-TV use. "If a lot of broadcasters cash out, that will eliminate a lot of existing TV white space..., but it will create more guard-band space. If broadcasters like staying broadcasters and don't cash out, then we will still have the TV white space we have now," Feld wrote.

Feld noted that the recently passed bill ensures companies building and deploying so-called Super Wi-Fi devices for use in TV white spaces can keep doing so, "knowing that one way or another they will still work."

"Thanks to the many allies and individuals that worked with us--particularly in the last two months--to turn this bill around, we converted a disaster to something that can be made to create a vibrant, competitive wireless future for all of us," said Feld.

For more:
- see this Free Press release
- see this Public Knowledge blog post
- see this GigaOM post

Related articles:
Verizon, AT&T cheer spectrum auctions; $7B earmarked for public safety network
FCC poised to get authority to conduct incentive auctions of broadcast spectrum
Sprint, T-Mobile urge Congress to preserve FCC's spectrum auction authority
Seybold's Take: Spectrum auctions locked in Congress
Wilmington white spaces network goes live