FCC could free up 'white space' for broadband use

— -- You've heard of Wi-Fi, WiMax and 3G wireless technologies. Add another (oddly named) wireless creation to the list: white space.

White space is industry lingo for the unused airwaves that abut TV spectrum and provide a buffer from stray signals and other interference.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on a measure that would make white space available for wireless broadband. Under the proposal, these airwaves would be treated like Wi-Fi — unlicensed and free to everybody.

"It will be like the Wi-Fi you get at Starbucks, only a lot better," says FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who first proposed the idea four years ago. The FCC's goal: to serve the expanding broadband needs of U.S. consumers.

"We are trying to make sure we're using this spectrum in the most efficient way possible," Martin says.

The amount of white space varies, but in some markets there's the equivalent of six TV channels. Allowing that spectrum to lie dormant, as it has for 50 years, isn't helpful to consumers, the FCC chief says.

Broadcasters are howling. They say white-space devices — which don't yet exist — might interfere with TV signals. That view is shared by Broadway theater owners, sports leagues and others that use electronic microphones, which use the same airwaves.

Bruce Mehlman, executive director of the Technology CEO Council, which represents tech giants such as IBM and Intel, has another theory: "(Broadcasters) were mentally reserving the right to use the spectrum for their own profit," he says.

Not so, says Dennis Wharton at the National Association of Broadcasters. "We're concerned about interference." NAB has asked the FCC to delay its vote for two months so it can review the FCC's latest engineering report, released two weeks ago. "What's the rush?" Wharton says.

One thing everybody agrees on: White-space airwaves are awesome. Signals in the spectrum can penetrate walls, making it ideal for wireless broadband.

When the FCC offered a licensed chunk of the spectrum earlier this year, wireless carriers pounced, paying a record $20 billion.

Martin says the FCC is keen to concerns laid out in more than 25,000 comments submitted over the past four years. White-space devices wouldn't be allowed to operate near TV broadcasters in major markets. Others could petition the FCC for similar "safe zone" treatment. Other safeguards are in place, he says.

"I don't think the commission should ever be so afraid of something that could happen, in the negative, that we don't move forward with something that has significant consumer benefit," he says.