Wireless to the People

Megan Tady

I’m no football fan, but I paid close attention to Saturday’s preseason showdown between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills – not for what was happening in the game, but was happening at the game. 

Think of it this way: Devices like baby monitors and garage door openers don't need a license to use the airwaves; the same should be true for wireless devices using white spaces to access the Internet.

The Federal Communications Commission used the stadium to test mobile wireless devices that harness vacant portions of the public airwaves. To me, the results of these tests – which could lead to high-speed Internet access for all Americans – is more thrilling than any quarterback sack. 

In the early days of television, the government established empty spectrum areas (dubbed white spaces”) between TV channels to guard against broadcast interference. These white spaces are beachfront property for broadband spectrum, with signal strength so powerful it can penetrate buildings and travel long distances. Think Wi-Fi on steroids. 

Nearly every market in the United States has empty broadcast channels currently sitting dormant. When the country transitions to digital television in February 2009, the number of these channels will only grow, freeing up even more white spaces. 

In 2005, Free Press analyzed the amount of white space that will be available post-transition, and the results are stunning. In Juneau, Alaska, for example, as much as 74 percent of the broadcast spectrum will be empty. In the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where airwaves are considerably more congested, 40 percent of the spectrum will be up for grabs. 

Companies like Motorola, Phillips and Microsoft have been developing new wireless digital technologies for installation in computers and phones to avoid all interference with broadcast channels. With these advances, the unused spectrum could – and should – make universal, affordable high-speed Internet access a reality to millions of Americans now stuck using antiquated dial-up modems, or with no access at all.

A (Potential) Boon for the Countryside

Most exciting is the effect white spaces could have on rural communities where Internet service providers have refused to build out broadband services. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, less than one third of rural residents had access to broadband at home, compared to more than half of city dwellers. 

With more airwaves dedicated to broadband service, rural communities previously frozen out of the digital era may finally enjoy the same social and economic benefits of high-speed Internet as millions of other Americans. And urban areas, too, which contain pockets of underserved communities, may finally find relief from long lines at library computers. 

But there’s an important caveat: not just any use of white spaces will do. It is crucial that white space airwaves remain unlicensed” – just like the spectrum’s existing Wi-Fi band – so anyone can use them. 

The government has the option to license the airwaves, auctioning them off to the highest bidder, who will have an exclusive right to determine how they are used. This highest bidder – say, a major broadcasting company – might have an incentive to simply sit on the vacant white spaces, rather than using them for the public good. We can’t take that chance. 

Think of it this way: Devices like baby monitors and garage door openers don’t need a license to use the airwaves; the same should be true for wireless devices using white spaces to access the Internet.

White space spectrum has the greatest potential to expand and improve wireless communications when paired with mobile devices, like laptops and cell phones. Imagine a farmer installing mobile devices on machinery or even livestock to ensure broadband coverage in remote areas, or a firefighter transmitting video from inside a burning building to his crew on the street with a handheld wireless camera. The possibilities are real, powerful and life-altering.

So what’s stopping us?

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the powerful and deep-pocketed broadcasting lobby, wants to keep a stranglehold on publicly owned white spaces. NAB has been shelling Washington with misinformation and scare tactics designed to dissuade the FCC and Congress from giving the green light to new technologies and dedicating more spectrum to wireless broadband.

The lobby has been using a tired static in my attic” routine to convince lawmakers and the public that white spaces will interfere with broadcast signals. The group has even created its own fear-mongering website, Inter​fer​ence​Zones​.com, which says: If these companies get their wish, you could be watching the big game, your favorite movie or breaking news when your pristine digital picture freezes, pixelates and the sound shuts off.”

NAB needs to call the dogs off and let the FCC do its job. Already, the agency has shown that fixed wireless devices (on towers or buildings, for example) utilizing white space do not interfere with broadcast signals. It’s only a matter of time before the NAB’s interference house of cards comes crashing down. 

If the FCC and Congress listen to the broadcast lobby, we will miss one of this country’s greatest opportunities to close the digital divide and democratize our media.

Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InThe​se​Times​.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.
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