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FCC Likely to Open Airwaves to Wireless

Edward Wyatt|The New York Times
Monday, 13 Sep 2010 | 9:37 AM ET

When the Federal Communications Commission first approved the use of unlicensed bands of the airwaves decades ago, it began a revolution in consumer electronics — first in television remote controls and garage door openers, then in baby monitors and cordless phones, and most recently in wireless computer networks.

Christopher Gould | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

This month, the F.C.C. is likely to approve what could be an even bigger expansion of the unlicensed airwaves, opening the door to supercharged Wi-Fi networks that will do away with the need to find a wireless hot spot and will provide the scaffolding for new applications that are not yet imagined.

“We know what the first kind of deployments will be,” Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., said in an interview, citing wireless broadband networks that can cover entire university or corporate campuses, for example — what is referred to in the industry as “Wi-Fi on steroids.”

The stronger, faster networks will extend broadband signals to bypassed rural areas and allow for smart electric grids, remote health monitoring and, for consumers, wireless Internet without those annoying dead zones.

“But this will also be a platform for innovators and entrepreneurs,” Mr. Genachowski said. “There is every chance of this leading to the development of one or more billion-dollar industries.”

Just as broadband-ready smartphones could hardly be imagined in 1938, when the F.C.C. first approved the use of unlicensed radio waves, or even in 1985, when it issued the rules that led to Wi-Fi, the eventual consumer products that will use the new airwaves are all but unknown.

“I’m absolutely confident that there will be a huge range of applications that we cannot yet predict,” said Dan Reed, corporate vice president for technology policy and strategy at Microsoft , which, alongside Google and Dell , has pushed hard for the F.C.C. to approve the new rules.

Anyone who has wandered through a hotel conference center waving a laptop and hoping for a signal knows that wireless broadband connections have their limitations.

The expanded access to airwaves offers a solution. The unused bands of spectrum were generated by the conversion of television signals from analog to digital. Because digital transmission uses a smaller slice of spectrum, more “white space” was freed up around each broadcast signal. It is those white spaces that the F.C.C. is now seeking to put to use.

The new airwaves are particularly attractive because television signals are low-frequency waves, meaning they can travel farther, go more easily through walls, trees and other obstructions, and provide more reliable connections.

As with any developing technology, uncertainties remain. Urban areas, which have the most demand for the new airwaves, have less of them available because more local television stations are using available bands. Also, by making the airwaves available free, the F.C.C. is bypassing the possibility of using them to generate revenue, either through auctions or user fees.

The F.C.C. is virtually certain to approve the new rules at its Sept. 23 meeting, because it already has approved a similar set of rules, in November 2008. Those rules have never been in effect, however, because both supporters and opponents of the concept objected to some of the details.

Supporters challenged the F.C.C.’s decision to require new devices to include a feature that conducts an electronic search for airwaves that are not occupied, as well as to rely on a database of unused airwaves in choosing a frequency on which to transmit its signal. That belt-and-suspenders approach would have made devices more expensive because of the complicated engineering required.

The use of the white spaces was more generally opposed by a coalition of industries that included broadcasters, who feared that the new signals would interfere with their transmissions, and theater owners, sports arenas and churches, which make extensive use of wireless microphones that they, too, feared would be subject to interference.

Exactly how the F.C.C. has addressed those objections will not be known until the new rules are released at the Sept. 23 meeting. But people in the telecommunications industry who keep close tabs on the agency say they expect that the searching requirement will be abandoned, and that wireless microphones will be given certain transmission priorities.

Wireless networks that use the white-space signals are already being tested in several locations. Microsoft uses the signals in a wireless network that stretches over its corporate campus in Redmond, Wash.

The city of Wilmington, N.C., and the surrounding New Hanover County has a trial network used by several government entities. The transportation department connects wirelessly to remote cameras that help it monitor traffic congestion. The parks department similarly monitors remote wetland areas and uses the signals to transmit environmental data that is required by federal regulators — saving the cost of sending an employee to scattered locations.

Some new devices undoubtedly will serve health care applications, allowing hospitals to move equipment easily without rewiring or allowing them to monitor patients in remote settings. And so-called smart grids — systems that allow a power company to track consumption and generation more closely or to control appliances from a central location — are also likely.

Blair Levin, a fellow at the Aspen Institute and a former F.C.C. official, said that although there was no guarantee that the new airwaves would produce the technological gold rush that some supporters have expected, “anything that is put to use that is now lying fallow is good for the economy.”

The fact that new applications can use unlicensed airwaves is important as an economic development tool, said Rebecca Arbogast, a managing director and telecommunications analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. Few companies have the billions of dollars required to buy spectrum that is periodically auctioned off by the F.C.C., she said, but unlicensed spectrum can attract cash-poor, start-up companies.

The deployment of television-band white spaces represents a rarely used model for the F.C.C., which historically has operated under more of a command-and-control model, in which it tells licensees what they can use their spectrum for.

“The last time we did this, no one knew what would happen,” Mr. Genachowski said. But the result — wireless computer networking and other consumer applications — has transformed the economy.

While issues of interference and other conflicts inevitably will arise and will be have to be addressed by the commission, he said, “we are confident that the benefits of moving forward are so significant that we should act now.”

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