Senators Part Ways on White Space Use

Senators John Sununu (R-N.H.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced competing legislation this week calling for the unused spectrum between broadcast channels to be utilized by wireless broadband providers.

Sununu and Kerry co-sponsored the unsuccessful Wireless Innovation Act last year. The bill sought to use the spectrum, known as “white channels” or “white spaces,” for unlicensed wireless use. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure but it never reached the Senate floor for a vote. Kerry has re-introduced the legislation.

Sununu, though, broke with Kerry this year, introducing his own version that hedges its bet on unlicensed use.

“I retain the option that licensing may be the best way to allocate some white space spectrum. This ensures the maximum flexibility for dealing with future applications or commercial ventures,” Sununu said in a statement.

Both senators hope their bills will generate a third competitor to cable and telephone company broadband services.

Although broadcasters are allocated hundreds of megahertz of spectrum in every U.S. television market, significant chunks are unused, serving as buffers against interference from other channels. In Boston and Chicago, for instance, almost 50 MHz is fallow.

The unused spectrum is considered ideal for wireless broadband because the radio signals penetrate walls and other objects.

“This is about harnessing the spirit of American innovation, where we all share in the expansion of the Internet’s reach,” Kerry said in a statement. “Our economy, our schools and our families are counting on us to make affordable broadband a reality everywhere.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is already studying the issue of using the spectrum for unlicensed use, contending that broadcasters’ original fears of interference are unjustified in a technological age that includes “smart radio” transmitters and receivers. The FCC proposal was introduced in May of 2004.

The FCC proposal would also permit low-power unlicensed devices such as laptop Wi-Fi cards, wireless keyboards and network routers to use the white space between broadcast channels 5 to 51.

“The FCC seems intent to inexplicably drag its feet on this measure — despite broad bipartisan support in the Congress, as indicated by the Senate Commerce Committee’s unanimous acceptance of a similar measure last year,” Kerry said.

Kerry wants the FCC to permit license-free use of the unassigned broadcast spectrum between 54MHz and 698 MHz within 180 days of enactment of his bill.

Sununu’s bill requires the FCC to finish its rules to permit use of unused broadcast spectrum between 54 MHz and 698 MHz within 90 days of enactment or Oct. 1 of this year, whichever is earlier.

“Broadcast spectrum that is otherwise unused represents a new frontier for product development,” Sununu. “By removing barriers that prohibit access to white spaces, there is enormous potential for entrepreneurs to bring products to market that are now beyond imagination.”

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