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Action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC 08-260): FCC Approves Unlicensed White Space Use


Action by the Federal Communications Commission, by Second Report and Order (FCC 08-260)

On November 4, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved the use of unlicensed wireless devices that operate in “white spaces,” the unused spectrum between licensed broadcast television channels that can be used to provide broadband connectivity and other services similar to Wi-fi. The Commission's approval extends to all WSDs that include a geolocation capability and a spectrum-sensing technology that will allow the device to determine what spectrum may be accessed at the particular location.

The decision comes after four years of debate, pitting an alliance of technology companies against parts of the entertainment industry. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Motorola urged the Commission to open the channels for general usage. A coalition comprised of broadcasters, theaters, sports franchises and other cell phone operators opposed the decision, arguing that white space devices (WSDs) operating within the unlicensed spectrum will cause interference in the neighboring licensed channels.

The New York Times, the BBC and ars techinca provide a summary of the Commission's order. Larry Page, co-founder of Google and proponent of opening up white spaces, comments on the Commission's approval. Andrew Seybold of FierceWireless, the wireless industry's daily monitor, warns that despite the precautions undertaken by the Commission, the new devices will likely cause interference with current services. TechCrunch suggests that Google's push for open use of white spaces is part of its strategy to create more connection points for mobile devices, including those powered by Android, the Google mobile device platform.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin called the approval of the use of the white spaces spectrum "a significant victory for consumers," and said that it had the potential to improve wireless broadband connectivity and to bring about new Internet-based products and services. Addressing the concerns voiced by a coalition of broadcasters, who argued that WSDs may disrupt existing services, Chairman Martin noted that the Commission had taken the unusual step of conducting interference testing prior to approval to ensure that these devices could be deployed safely.

He emphasized that prior to entering the market, WSDs will undergo a rigorous certification process, and will be required to use geo-location to demonstrate that they can operate in a particular location without causing interference.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps issued a separate statement. He observed that few other engineering analyses conducted by the FCC had been as lengthy or as open as the present one, and acknowledged that testing had shown that there was merit in the initial positions argued for by each of the two opposing sides in the debate. Conceding that there can "never be metaphysical certainty when it comes to interference issues," Copps maintained that the geo-location requirement and the testing and certification process the new devices will adequately protect the licensed users of the television band.

In a separate statement, Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein emphasized the significant potential the approval had for fostering competition and bringing broadband access to rural areas, and said that it will give the United States the opportunity to reclaim its place as a world leader in broadband deployment.

Although Adelstein suggested that in this instance, the Commission may have "put[] expediency ahead of an open process," resulting in "unnecessary resentment from parties that believe they were not given a fair hearing," he said that the independent engineering staff justified the decision on the basis of their expert analysis.

Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate also issued a separate statement approving in part and dissenting in part. She recognized that allowing unlicensed use of white spaces would enable the use of entirely new services and devices, but cautioned that it would also pose a real risk of interfering with existing services. She highlighted that the Commission will create a database of existing operations in particular channels and geographic areas that will remain unavailable to unlicensed operators. Requiring providers to verify that channels are available prior to accessing them will ensure that broadcast operations will receive complete protection from interference, according to Tate.