WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to let wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) to operate in unused spectrum space currently occupied by TV broadcasters. The proposal is aimed at giving consumers an alternative to cable and telecom broadband providers.
Allowing unlicensed operations in the TV bands would extend the existing service range of WISPs since transmissions in the TV spectrum travel further and can better penetrate buildings. The FCC proposal would also permit low-power unlicensed devices such as laptop Wi-Fi cards, wireless keyboards and network routers to use what is known as the “white space” between broadcast channels 5 to 51.
Most broadcast channels are separated by small swaths of spectrum to limit interference from other stations, but the FCC says advances in “smart radio” transmitters and receivers will limit interference. Under the proposal, unlicensed devices would be required to operate on a strict non-interference basis through technology that would identify unused space in the TV channels.
“This technology has the potential to provide greater service to the American public,” FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said. “It promises to dramatically increase the availability and quality of wireless Internet connections — the equivalent of doubling the number of lanes on a congested highway.”
While the Commission unanimously approved the proposal, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein expressed concern over the interference potential to broadcasters.
Adelstein said, “Television broadcasts are viewed by people as perhaps the most sacred use of public spectrum. Their TV is not to be trifled with. We will hear an earful from consumers if this is not done right.”
He also questioned the timing of the proposal.
“It is worrisome that we are undertaking this proceeding right in the middle of our important digital television transition,” Adelstein said. “I have lingering concerns about the wisdom of allowing unlicensed operations in the vacant television bands before the DTV transition is complete.”
Broadcasters are facing a 2006 deadline to make a switch to digital transmissions after agreeing in 1997 to swap their current analog channels for $70 billion worth of spectrum more suitable for digital television. The FCC plans to auction the analog channel space to WISPs.
But few industry observers think the nation’s television broadcasters will make the 2006 deadline, further delaying the rollout of wireless broadband. Broadcasters, for instance, have filed petitions with the FCC to delay allowing the white space use by wireless devices over interference concerns.
The foot dragging by the broadcasters has prompted frustration by Powell, the Bush administration and a number of technology groups.
“How often can broadcasters cry wolf over DTV?” Harold Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project, asked in a statement. “Every year they have a new excuse not to hand back the analog spectrum. If they’re so worried about interference, they should switch to digital and get out of the analog broadcasting altogether.”
Jim Snider, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, added in the same statement, “The broadcast bands are grossly underutilized. The average television market has more than 50 empty analog television channel ‘slots.’ New digital technologies allow broadcasters and citizens to share this empty space with no interference. Given the rules the FCC proposes, no one watching TV will notice any difference.”