FCC approves 'white space' for broadband

— -- The Federal Communications Commission, as expected, approved a measure that would make "white space" spectrum available for wireless broadband.

White space is industry lingo for the unused airwaves that abut broadcast TV spectrum, providing a buffer zone from stray signals and other inferference. The buffer zone was set up more than 50 years ago when TV was first invented.

The FCC's white-space plan was initially proposed four years ago. More than 25,000 comments — from supporters as well as critics — were submitted.

Under the FCC's plan, white space spectrum will be unlicensed and free — like Wi-Fi — to anybody who wants to use it. In some markets, there's enough white space to fill a half dozen TV channels.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says consumer are the biggest winners. The white-space plan "is a significant victory for consumers," he told USA TODAY. "The abilty to have Wi-Fi like connectivity, at faster speeds and greater range" will help further deployment of broadband across the USA.

Supporters cheered the move. "This spectrum should become fertile ground for innovation, potentially offering consumers and companies an unlimited variety of applications, devices, networks and more," the Information Technology Association said in a prepared statement. Tech giant Motorola agreed. By allowing the use of white-space spectrum, "the FCC is advancing access to broadband services, especially in rural areas where broadband is more limited," Motorola said in a prepared statement. Other supporters include IBM, HP and Dell.

Broadcasters opposed the plan. Their basic beef: white space devices — which don't yet exist — might introduce interference into TV signals. Sports leagues, Broadway theatre owners and others that rely on wireless microphones, which use the same airwaves, also opposed the plan.

To guard against inferference, the FCC adopted a number of safeguards. Example: In major markets, you won't be able to use white-space devices near TV broadcast locations or big entertainment venues such as Madison Square Garden. Others can ask the FCC for similar "safe zone" treatment.

The FCC also opened an inquiry into cable TV pricing Monday. Specifically, the agency is investigating how much cable TV operators plan to charge consumers once the nation moves from analog to all-digital broadcast TV. The move, which will impact millions of TV viewers across the USA, takes place next February.

According to Martin, consumers have lately been flooding the FCC with complaints about the post-transition plans of cable TV operators. "There's a lot of consumer confusion," he says. The agency's concern, he says, is that cable TV operators will try to use the transition to force customers to "spend the same amount of money to get less" programming once the transition takes place, "or more money to get the same" amount of programming. Either way, he says, consumers wind up losing. The FCC doesn't regulate cable TV prices, per se. But under its mandate from Congress, the agency has broad latitude to look out for the interests of consumers — including cable TV customers.

As part of the inquiry, the FCC sent a letter yesterday to a number of cable companies, including Time Warner, Comcast and Verizon, seeking information about their post-transition pricing plans. Consumer's Union, one of the largest consumer advocacy groups in the USA, wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate last month asking for such a review, Martin noted.