FCC Tames Dog in the Manger

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: trioffer / flickr

In my town, we want cell service so bad we can taste it. It’s a matter of convenience, for sure. But more importantly, the issue is safety.

There’s no way to get home from any direction without driving up a long and winding road. Houses, thus land line telephones, can be a few miles apart. Passing cars are few and far between, especially at night in the winter months when the roads are icy and the cold wind blows. And there’s no place anywhere, on any of the four roads into town, where you can use a cell phone to call for help.

If I were caught in an avalanche on Granite Mountain, near Seattle, my cell phone could get me rescued. If I lost my way mountain climbing in Thailand, I could call for help. But here? Here, I can freeze to death. I’m no chicken, but I have responsibilities to another person. Come winter, I’m home most of the time.

Now it’s beginning to look as though cell service may get here within my lifetime. Next Thursday, September 23, members of the Federal Communications Commission will vote at an open meeting to open up a large chunk of frequencies, known as white spaces, to a variety of devices without requiring they be licensed.

White spaces are the areas between the broadcast frequencies that used to be occupied by analog television signals, which last year were replaced by narrow digital TV signals. If you want to see a video that explains the technology at about a third grade level, look here. Try not to let the narrator’s patronizing tone offend you. And keep in mind that the decision referred to at the end was made nearly two years ago, at an FCC meeting on Nov. 4, Election Day, 2008.

How large is the available space? A chart shows that 72% of the broadcast spectrum will become available in the Charleston, WV area, 82% in Fargo, ND, and 52% around Las Vegas, NV. Even the densely populated Boston, MA area will have 38% free white space.

It’s taken this long to get the ball rolling in large part because, in true dog-in-the-manger style, the broadcast networks fought hard to keep control over space they didn’t need. Wireless microphone users – houses of worship, theaters, sports teams, for example – voiced concern over possible interference from others’ signals, too. The FCC has come up with a plan to protect those users – a geographic database of microphone frequencies used, into which other gadgets can look so they can pick one that won’t bother anyone else.

The FCC’s open meeting will be broadcast on the web on Sept. 23 starting at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. Audio and open-captioned video will be found here.

It looks like equipment will be available about a year from now, using the new so-called “super” WI-FI signal that operates at the speed of light and can plow through walls.

Smart phones are expected to be among the devices offered. I’d just as soon have a phone that’s not smarter than I am, but I guess I’ll have to adapt. Actually, I love gadgets. But I’ve long believed that the more things a device can do – make phone calls, explore the internet, gather email, take still pictures and videos, play games with you, and whatever else – the more things can go wrong and the more likely you are to be without the thing just when you need it most.

Still, I’m saving my nickels.

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One Response to “FCC Tames Dog in the Manger”

  1. When you get the ability to hook up with a smart phone, I’ll be the first to donate a few nickels to help get you one! Personally, I think you might be able to teach it a few things.

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