FCC approves white spaces, creates interference restrictions

WASHINGTON--Ushering in a new era of wireless communications, the FCC voted Tuesday to approve the unlicensed use of TV white space spectrum for wireless applications and devices. However, the FCC did add some rigorous conditions under which the devices would have to operate to prevent interference.

White space spectrum--the spectrum that sits between airwaves currently licensed to TV broadcasters--has been the focus of intense debate for months. Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Motorola had been advocating using those slices of spectrum to bring broadband wireless access to rural areas of the United States and to increase the use of wireless devices and applications in the spectrum in general.

The FCC heralded the decision as a big step forward for wireless technology in the United States. "One of the lessons of history I have learned since coming to the commission  is the power of technology to turn scarcity into abundance," Commissioner Michael Copps said.

The FCC voted to approve the use of both unlicensed fixed band devices and portable personal devices that have geolocation capabilities and access to an FCC database of TV signals and locations of things such as stadiums, churches and entertainment venues where wireless microphones were being used. These database and geolocation capabilities would, in theory, prevent  interference with broadcast TV stations and wireless microphones and ensure compliance with FCC rules.

The FCC did not approve devices that used spectrum sensing technology only, but did say that these devices could be approved at a later date if they would undergo additional certifications, including proof-of-performance tests. These tests would be public and public comment could be made on them.

"Does this seem almost too good to be true? It does," Copps said. "But so did the modern cell phone industry. And the explosion of WiFi devices. This is the history of wireless industry in a nutshell, with the nearly miraculous becoming commonplace."

Copps noted that all white space devices would have get individual FCC approval, and could be shut off if interfere or if there is a manufacturing flaw in the device.

Commisioner Jonathan Adelstein praised the effort.  "White spaces are the blank pages on which we'll write our broadband future," he said.

Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate dissented in part on the measure, and expressed concerns that the process for dealing with potential interference issues was too vague.

Google, in particular, was intensely involved in the lobbying, starting a website, www.freetheairwaves.com, to argue their case. Top Microsoft executives, including founder Bill Gates, weighed in on the matter.

The move was vehemently opposed by the National Broadcasters Association, which argued that that unlicensed use of white space would create too much interference for broadcasters, and a slew of recording artists who said that it would interfere with wireless microphones used in performances.

The battle drew in members of Congress who argued for a delay on the vote and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who argued that the proposal should be voted on.

Commisioner Robert McDowell said the order was "prudent" and "cautious" and had appropriate safeguards for interference.

"One day we will likely look back on this order and think of it is quaint, but today it is state-of-the-art," he said.

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