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


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

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

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