Coalition Wants TV 'White Spaces' For Broadband

The Google-backed Wireless Innovation Alliance calls for the FCC to open up the gaps between existing television channels for Internet use.

A coalition of technology companies, advocacy groups and industry associations is pushing for the Federal Communications Commission to ease its restrictions on the use of the frequency bands between television channels available for unlicensed broadband wireless applications.

The Wireless Innovation Alliance is lobbying the FCC and Congress to open up the "white spaces,: as they're called, for use as wireless broadband spectrum.

The WIA includes many of the members of the White Spaces Coalition, a group of technology companies that has lined up behind a prototype device built by Microsoft that can use the white space spectrums to provide high-speed broadband access to consumers.

The device was delivered to the FCC for testing in March.

"The FCC has a unique opportunity to turn today's TV static into tomorrow's ubiquitous wireless broadband," said Richard Whitt, the Telecom and Media Counsel for Google, a White Spaces Coalition and WIA member. "One of Google's aims is to bring the mobile Web to as many Americans as possible, and this unused spectrum represents a terrific opportunity to expand the Internet's reach even further."

However, the WIA also includes advocacy groups pushing for a much broader definition of the use of the vacant spectrum space.

"Every market in the country has vacant portions of the public airwaves that aren't occupied by TV channels," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a media reform advocacy group. "In some communities, more than three-quarters of available television spectrum is unused—representing billions of dollars in squandered public resources. Opening up these white spaces is key to creating the healthy competition, consumer choices and technological innovation we need to provide an open Internet to everyone."

How these white spaces should be divvied up between the private and public sector remains to be seen.

"This isn't about a single device or even a category of devices, said Jake Ward, a spokesman for the WIA, in an interview with InternetNews.com. "This is about the concept of white spaces and how it can serve the greater public good, including public safety and education, as well as consumer needs. We're on the verge of the FCC making a pretty remarkable decision—one way or the other—on whether they're going to foster the growth of this opportunity by writing clear rules of the road on how white space can be used."

The WIA includes more than 15 organizations and companies, including TechNet, Educause, the Information Technology Industry Council, Google and Microsoft.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of six members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight over the FCC, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, urging the commission to "work to resolve any open technical questions and complete a final order in the next few months" regarding the use of white spaces.

"I’m proud to support the WIA coalition, alongside my colleagues in Congress who also back the use of TV white spaces,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, one of the congressmen signing the letter . “I look forward to helping the coalition's education campaign, and congratulate the member organizations for their dedication to this critical issue.”

Another factor impacting the discussion about what should be done with these white spaces is the television industry's ongoing migration from analog to digital format to meet the February 17, 2009 deadline set by Congress.

"It certainly has an impact," Ward said. "What impact we can't be sure. The timing is an issue, obviously, and how the FCC wants to proceed will ultimately be up to the FCC. But there's a conceptual issue as well, that white spaces technology is an essential part of the future of communications in this country."

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