On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to approve a final rule that will free up so-called ‘white spaces’ in the spectrum previously set aside for television broadcasts. The FCC is reportedly liberating the spectrum in order to cater for the surge in mobile broadband traffic. White spaces, which are essentially the television channels in any given broadcast service area over which no one currently sends signals, have previously been left open to prevent interference. However, the digital television transition was completed last year, freeing up numerous channels and making interference less likely.
After initially proposing plans to free up white spaces in the 1990s, the FCC approved – in outline form – the opening of the white spaces two years ago, but ran into opposition from broadcasters, concerned that unlicenced transmissions would interfere with their television signals. The broadcasters sued the FCC to try to stop the release, but the suit is currently on hold.
Because the white spaces are in the robust television portion of the spectrum, they can travel through walls, unlike Wi-Fi, and can cover an area that is 16 times greater than existing Wi-Fi signals. Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future programme at Washington think-tank, the New America Foundation commented: ‘This creates the potential for Wi-Fi on steroids.’ Because the spectrum will be unlicensed, it could be used for a variety of uses, including providing broadband access in rural areas. According to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the freeing up of the white space spectrum is the most significant release of airwaves for unlicenced use by the FCC since 1985; the spectrum released then was eventually used for Wi-Fi.