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FCC opens up 'white spaces' spectrum to mobile devices

Wireless devices could soon access the 'super Wi-Fi' spectrum, supporters say

By , IDG News Service
September 23, 2010 01:31 PM ET

IDG News Service - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to open up unused spectrum in the television band to unlicensed wireless broadband devices, a move that will give U.S. residents access to "super Wi-Fi," the agency's chairman said.

The FCC's unanimous vote Thursday comes after an eight-year debate about opening up the so-called spectrum white spaces to wireless devices. U.S. television stations, wireless microphone makers, sports leagues and churches had opposed the move because of their concerns about potential interference with existing TV channels and wireless microphones, which already operate without FCC licenses in the same spectrum.

Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski called the vote a major step forward for broadband service and innovation in the U.S. The white spaces spectrum will be "super Wi-Fi," with longer range, faster speeds and more reliable service than traditional Wi-Fi, he said.

"Today, we open a new platform for American innovation," he said. "This is important and will enhance our economy, strengthen our global competitiveness, lead to billions of dollars in private investment and to valuable new products and services."

The FCC vote marks the first "significant" release of unlicensed wireless spectrum in 25 years, Genachowski said. The last major FCC action on unlicensed spectrum, opening up so-called "junk" spectrum in 1985, led to the development of Wi-Fi, he noted.

Several tech vendors and consumer groups praised the FCC's vote.

"As more people access information via mobile and other intelligent devices, additional strain is being put on existing wireless networks," Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, said in a statement. "With this vote, the commission is taking a forward-looking view of how to optimize spectrum allocation by capitalizing on evolving technologies. As a result, technology companies will be able to develop new applications that tap into the potential of white spaces networks."

The FCC's action is a "great step forward" for consumers looking for new wireless products and services, added Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. "White spaces technology ... will be adapted to uses ranging from adding flexibility to laptops and tablet computers, to extending broadband access to underserved people in rural and urban settings."

Feld called on the FCC to reject limits on the white spaces spectrum that TV stations and other opponents may ask for.

The FCC's vote Thursday addressed 17 petitions for reconsideration of a November 2008 white spaces vote by the commission. Commissioners voted to revamp parts of the original order, the initial step to opening up the white spaces to wireless broadband devices.

In an effort to protect wireless microphones from interference, commissioners voted to set aside two TV channels nationwide for wireless microphones. Those channels should allow 12 to 16 wireless microphones to operate in an area at the same time, said Hugh Van Tuyl, a senior staff engineer with the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET).

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