News Analysis: The FCC's move is only the first step in making broadband wireless generally available on unused former television buffer frequencies.
When the Federal Communications Commission
issued its press release about the approval of additional unlicensed
spectrum in what are called "white spaces," it referred to the coming
technologies as "Super WiFi."
In reality, it's not clear that this previously
unavailable set of unused frequencies will necessarily become anything
that resembles WiFi. As the FCC points out in its statement, this is
spectrum space that's going to be available to a wide range of
technologies, of which wireless broadband is only one. Even if this
turns out to be a significant use of these white space frequencies,
it's not clear whether WiFi (or something like it) will be related in
The white space decision allows the use for a
variety of unlicensed services of the former guard bands between
television channels. These guard bands were there to protect the
signals from one station against being interfered with by an adjacent
station. Because analog television signals were a combination of an AM
signal and an FM signal, the required bandwidth could be slightly
unpredictable. In addition, the technology at the time, especially in
the old analog television sets, really didn't have the ability to zero
in on one channel and block out transmissions that were close to the
Now that television has moved to digital
signals, this has all changed. Those guard bands are less necessary,
and interference is less of a problem. But that's not the same thing as
saying there's no possibility of interference with commercial
broadcasting, because there is. As a result, the FCC has to make sure
the devices that use these frequencies meet certain standards in terms
of power output, frequency accuracy, transmission type, etc. In
addition, because there won't be unlimited spectrum available, the FCC
has to determine what the best use of a particular set of frequencies
In the case of data communications, or the
"Super WiFi" that the FCC talks about, this could mean, among other
things, that the FCC might require interoperability among the carriers
providing this service. So just as any WiFi device has the ability to
connect to a WiFi access point, the FCC might decide the best use of
the limited spectrum is to let any white space device communicate with
services on those frequencies.
On the other hand, it's possible that the FCC
might sell this spectrum to mobile carriers, perpetuating the four
closed-carrier systems that persist in the United States now. Right
now, while the FCC is trumpeting its achievement at getting all sides
to agree on ways to avoid interference with existing licensed services
on these frequencies, the fact is that we don't really know any details
about how this will ultimately shake out.
When Clint Boulton wrote about the FCC's White Space decision,
he quoted Google's counsel expressing delight at the event. But what
the FCC needs to ensure is that these frequencies aren't made the
exclusive domain of Google, Microsoft or any other specific entity.
Right now, both companies are experimenting with content delivery in
the white-space frequencies, but they're using it for fairly
proprietary purposes. If this resource is really going to contribute to
the FCC's National Broadband Plan, what needs to exist on these
frequencies is free and open access to high speed Internet
Note that by free, I don't mean it won't cost
anything. What I mean is that it should be free of restrictions. Google
shouldn't be able to tie up a set of frequencies for its exclusive use,
and neither should any other company. If these frequencies are to
achieve their intended purpose as stated by the FCC when it agreed to
open them to unlicensed use, then they need to be available to anyone
with the right device.
For this to work, there must be standards, much
like those the WiFi Alliance has created for WiFi use. The reason WiFi
has been so successful is because the standards require
interoperability. New versions of WiFi are backward-compatible with
older versions, an old 802.11b device can still communicate with an
802.11n access point. These standards mean that you don't have to buy a
particular wireless device to work with a specific access point.
Instead, everything works together.
Right now the FCC's new white space proposal
doesn't include any requirement for standardization. In fact, right now
there really aren't any specific rules or guidelines beyond some that
protect broadcasters and wireless microphone makers. It's possible that
some industry group will step in and create a set of standards and a
certification process, which is what happened with WiFi. It's even
possible that the WiFi Alliance will take this on, since they at least
know how to make this work.
But at this point, none of this has happened.
While the FCC's action is cause to be hopeful, it's hardly cause for
celebration. First, we have to find out the details of what the FCC has
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.