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FCC Opens Unused Airwaves for 'Super Wi-Fi'

Wi-Fi Networkers

A group of computer users test Verizon's Wi-Fi hot spots in New York City. Thanks to a new set of FCC guideliness, Wi-Fi speeds may be soon be dramatically boosted. (AP)

Ultrafast wireless connections may be just around the corner -- thanks to digital television.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday released its long-awaited rules regarding devices that access unused wireless spectrum -- so called "white spaces" -- extending wireless capabilities and potentially creating "Wi-Fi on steroids." The new rules walk the line between expanding Wi-Fi and the preventing disruption to existing TV signals.

What exactly are white spaces? When TV stations switched from analog to digital signals in June 2009, they left behind unused spectrum -- or "white spaces" -- between the TV channels, spectrum  that companies like Microsoft and Google wanted to use for mobile broadband purposes. However, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) argued that such activity could disrupt TV signals and wireless microphone transmissions.

White spaces are particularly desirable because they have the ability to provide high-speed, wireless Internet service on a grander scale than traditional Wi-Fi. The technology uses low frequencies, which travel very well through buildings, trees, and over varied terrain. It could cover a 50-mile radius with a single access point, while white-space manufacturers in denser areas could turn the power way down to make their gadgets into home-networking equipment.

Under the new rules, any white spaces device must include geo-location, which will allow it to cross reference its location with a database of licensed spectrum users in the area to make sure the device does not interfere. The FCC ditched a requirement that such devices also include sensing, a technology that scans spectrum for unused channels.

On the wireless microphone issue, the FCC said it would set aside certain TV channels in each market specifically for the microphones so they can operate without interference. That would accommodate between 12 to 16 microphones, which the FCC thinks should be sufficient in most cases.

Wireless microphones will not be included in the spectrum database, but for events that use a lot of microphones -- like New York's Broadway district or professional sports events -- organizers can request to be included in the database. Those requests must be submitted in advance and will be open for public review, the FCC said.

In 2008, the FCC voted to allow the production of white spaces devices that use sensing and geo-location. Devices that used sensing alone would have to be submitted for additional FCC tests. A delay in the DTV transition and squabbles on both sides, as well as various re-consideration petitions and an FCC proceeding about the geo-location database, delayed definitive action on the issue until now.

Thursday's vote ditched the sensing requirement, though the commission encouraged the "continued development of sensing on a voluntarily basis [because it] might be an important tool in providing access to other spectrum bands."

Thursday's rules received unanimous support from all four commissioners and Chairman Julius Genachowski. The vote "marks the commission's first significant release of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years," Genachowski said. He predicted it will become a "powerful platform for innovation."

"Other countries have been looking at Wi-Fi, [but the] U.S. will be the first nation to deploy this technology," he said. "We can have the investment here, the intellectual property developed here, the products launched here, and then exported globally," which will contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she was pleased that the FCC revisited its decision to ban white spaces at the Canadian and Mexican borders due to concern about international interference. Many tribal communities there would benefit greatly from increased access to Wi-Fi, Clyburn said, so the logical choice is to include Canadian and Mexican stations in the TV white spaces database.

Republican Commissioner Meredith A. Baker said Thursday's rules were a "solid building block for spectrum policy," but stressed that any device should not harm existing operations. "Broadcasters' rights must be protected," she said.

"NAB's overriding goal in this proceeding has been to ensure America's continued interference-free access to high quality news, entertainment and sports provided by free and local television stations," Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communication with NAB. "We look forward to reviewing the details of today's ruling."

The move received widespread praise from various companies and interest groups as well.

"We're glad to see that the FCC appears to have rejected calls to enact burdensome and unnecessary constraints that would have made it more difficult to deploy useful technologies on these airwaves," Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, said in a statement. "Instead, the commission has put forward common-sense rules that will help encourage innovation, while fully safeguarding incumbent signals from interference."

Whitt said he hopes the FCC will soon name a geo-location database administrator and establish ground rules for its operation so products can start rolling out to customers.

"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," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer. "On Microsoft's own campus in Redmond, WA, a prototype 'White-Fi' system delivers more economical broadband Internet access for employees traveling between buildings on the campus. The FCC's decision will create opportunities for American companies to remain at the forefront of technological innovation."

"Today's decision was a positive -- albeit long overdue -- step forward on white spaces, and Free Press is pleased with the FCC's decision, which will allow innovators to continue to develop technology capable of using the white spaces spectrum between television channels," M. Chris Riley, policy counsel for the D.C.-based consumer group Free Press.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the move is a "sure-fire way to promote innovation and provide low-cost Internet to folks in Western Massachusetts and across the country. His Republican counterpart, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, said white spaces devices will "further bridge the 'digital divide' that unfortunately continues to exist today."