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FCC Dreams of a White (Space) Christmas for Wireless Gadgets

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If the NFL and NBC can successfully stream the wildly popular, three-hour-plus Super Bowl live via Verizon’s mobile network on February 5th the event could usher in a whole new level of demand for high-speed wireless bandwidth. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a step toward meeting that anticipated demand this week by approving technology to let wireless users access content via unused airwaves on the broadcast spectrum known as “white spaces.” (pdf)

Tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have been saying for the past few years that white spaces will allow computers, mobile phones and other wireless devices to transfer data in gigabits per second (compared with Wi-Fi’s megabit-per-second speeds). Broadcasters, however, have demanded proof that wireless devices could efficiently pinpoint and use these white spaces without disrupting broadcast signals or other devices (such as wireless microphones) licensed to use the spectrum.

The proposed solution has been a database identifying white space locations that wireless devices could automatically consult before connecting. The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) put this plan in gear Thursday by authorizing the first such database to go live on January 26 in Wilmington, N.C. This TV bands database system, created by Spectrum Bridge, Inc., checks the geographic location of a device requesting white-space access, calculates channels available for operation by the device for its reported location, and then returns a list of those channels. Success in Wilmington will enable the spread of additional regional databases nationwide.

The broadcast spectrum’s low-frequency waves have strong propagation characteristics allowing the signals to reach farther than Wi-Fi and penetrate walls and other impediments. Wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T are in favor of white space use as a way of diverting mobile video traffic from their already overburdened cell networks.

Resistance to unlicensed white space use has come primarily from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which contents that broadcasters have had difficulty registering their licenses with Spectrum Bridge’s database. (pdf) The FCC says additional testing of the registration process will be done over the next few weeks but that the system is otherwise good to go.

Given the number of smart phones, tablets and other wireless gadgets sure to be unwrapped this holiday season it’s not surprising that the FCC is anxious to see its white space project move forward.

Image courtesy of LdF, via

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sethdayal 12:43 pm 12/26/2011

    Unfortunately, with the regular payoff’s of the FCC and politicians by Big Telecom, these minor little developments, handy as they are obscure on purpose the changes that need to made to resurrect the American telecom structure now approaching third world status with speed,quality and cost.

    The bandwidth here 10 Mbs now/growing to 20Mbs soon covering the area of a TV signal is obviously of little impact outside of rural areas.

    What will make an impact is when cable companies shut out of spectrum auctions and too late into the mobile game will as Western Canada’s Shaw Cable has announced, put wifi access points soon capable of over 1 GBs, everywhere you see a cable amp. The cost is tiny compared to a conventional wireless system

    The only time you’ll need to use worthless spectrum wasting offerings from the phone company will be in rural areas.

    Public power utilities of course could offer 1 GB/s wired/wireless access for pennies if they allowed broadband signals to be piggybacked on the fiber optic plant they are running into every neighborhood in the country for smart meter programs. Unfortunately the politicians that control them are of course paid off with campaign donations and such by the same Big Telecom interests.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Hel-n-highwater 1:19 pm 12/28/2011

    Thanks for the worthless offerings in rural America!!! There are lots of locations all over the USA that are far from cable offerings, even ones that are in between where the cable is offered in locations in central Pa. between towns 40 miles apart. Such locations that need such access. Four Gigabytes from Verizon costs $60 and is just enough for two weeks of cyber school where my grandkids live. The school buses also take about three hours twice a day to get them to a brick and mortar schools and now teens can not drive their siblings while parents work so your observation is very elitest and class divisive. Bet you are a Republicon, fiber optics was supposed to be laid across Penna in the 1990′s but somehow it was not done… Thank you Mr. Ridge, another Republicon who believes in colored crayons for communication not national connections for firemen, policemen or civilians.

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