FCC Votes Tuesday on White Spaces
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
The most historical vote of our lifetime is not the only one taking place November 4. Also on that day the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote in an open meeting on rules for operation of low power devices in a portion of the broadcast televison spectrum known as “white spaces.” The commissioners’ decision has significance for every rural resident who is currently deprived of high speed broadband access to the Internet. If the white spaces, currently controlled by the broadcast networks, become available for public use, the likelihood that broadband Internet and cell phone access will become a reality regardless of where you live will take a quantum leap.
Rural communities have long heard promises of telehealth and long-distance education, but without access to broadband, the benefits of high-speed Internet remain a neglected promise. Access to broadband will provide rural residents with important opportunities for education, health, economic development, and public safety.
White spaces are the unused frequencies between those assigned to television operators. This video, although unfortunately it seems to be narrated by a fugitive from Miss Minnick’s kindergarten class, is worth the three minutes it takes to get to understand the significance of white spaces.
The issue has been hanging around for at least five years, and there are those who think FCC should have freed up the spaces before now. But broadcasters have objected in the past, either out of fear of white space signals messing up their transmissions or, as some think, out of a wish to control the spaces and avoid the possibility of competition springing up as new wireless devices come on the market and new consumers find themselves wireless-enabled.
What’s different now is the forthcoming end of analog TV. After February 17, 2009, full power television stations will send programming only in digital format, a much narrower band that leaves plenty of space for other devices to operate between licensed stations. A chart of broadcast space that will become available when TV goes digital 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.
Broadcasters say they’re still worried about interference, but this time it looks as though they won’t control the votes of the five FCC commissioners, three Republicans and two Democrats. Lined up in opposition to the broadcasters are high-tech companies such as Microsoft and Google, who want to develop their own wireless devices.
According to a report Wednesday by the Reuters news service, passage by at least three of the five commissioners seems likely. One commissioner, Republican Robert McDowell, described himself as “very optimistic. I think this could be a 5-to-0 vote,” he is reported as having said. The proposal was drawn up by Republican commission Chairman Kevin Martin.
The proposed rule is very strict about FCC control over devices that will operate in the white spaces. Each will undergo thorough testing by FCC engineers before being turned loose on the open market. An FCC spokesman estimates it will be 18 months to two years before white space devices and services are available.