The US Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to allow unlicensed broadcast TV spectrum to be used by companies to create wireless broadband services that amount to “WiFi on steroids.” This was a hotly contested issue, with tech and electronics companies like Google, HP, Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Motorola, among a number of others, lining up in favor and a coalition of sports teams, theater producers, musicians and broadcasters, among others, opposing the plan.
The opponents and detractors unsuccessfully argued that new uses of the white spaces “radio spectrum,” existing “between” frequencies used by broadcasters and others, might disrupt broadcasts or live performances. Initial testing of devices on this spectrum did indicate there was some cause for concern. But upon retesting and some lobbying publicly and privately, the FCC directors voted to approve the plan to allow access to this spectrum.
Here’s what Google envisions:
Google and other companies (including Dell, EarthLink, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, and Philips) have formed the “White Spaces Coalition,” to persuade the FCC to establish appropriate interference standards that would allow entrepreneurs to develop fixed and mobile devices that utilize these airwaves. Earlier this year, the coalition submitted two prototype devices (from Microsoft and Philips) to the FCC’s engineers to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach.
The idea is to create wireless broadband using this spectrum that will effectively ensure continuous and near-universal coverage for internet-connected devices (fixed and mobile). Unlike conventional radio/wireless spectrum, the “unlicensed” part of this means that no one has to pay anything to the FCC to use it. That stands in contrast to the nearly $20 billion paid as part of the recent 700MHz spectrum auction earlier this year (dominated by AT&T and Verizon).
What happens now? Google co-founder Larry Page makes a prediction:
We will soon have “Wi-Fi on steroids,” since these spectrum signals have much longer range than today’s Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations resulting in better coverage at lower cost.
In a semi-related vein, Google previously filed a patent application that describes an open, competitive marketplace for wireless telecommunications and broadband services. It would theoretically permit users to move with their mobile devices (computers, phones, etc.) between networks and, essentially, always be assured of a connection at the best price. I was quite skeptical this could ever come into being as a practical matter. But whether or not this specific idea is ever translated into reality, the approval of the white spaces plan may amount to the same thing.
Google is also an investor in Clearwire, the Sprint majority owned WiMax venture now in operation in several US markets.
Stepping back, as the white spaces spectrum are utilized, we will likely see more options for consumers for internet access. Precisely when and how much this will cost is unclear. We may also see (in time) a range of new devices that tap into this spectrum (like Amazon’s Kindle does with Sprint’s network) to offer connectivity on the go — perhaps without any sort of access subsription or consumer account.
Many of those new devices may look very different than today’s netbooks or smartphones, but could also be powered by a Windows OS or Android or Linux. In time the internet may get integrated into many more types of devices (e.g., home refrigerators, in-store kiosks, new digital newspapers, etc.) via this spectrum as well.
It opens up a range of intriguing possibilities for consumers, tech and media companies and device makers. And it points to a not-too-distant future of near-ubiquitous internet connectivity.
There’s more discussion at Techmeme.