In a big victory for public-interest groups and technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Tuesday to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband service.

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WASHINGTON — In a big victory for public-interest groups and technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Tuesday to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as “white spaces” to deliver wireless broadband service.

Tech firms and community activists say white spaces could be used to bring broadband to rural America and other underserved parts of the country.

“White spaces are the blank pages on which we which we will write our broadband future,” said Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member commission. He said white spaces could represent a “third channel” to reach consumers beyond the telephone and cable networks that are the primary competition in the broadband market.

Opening up this spectrum to high-speed wireless connections has been a high priority for Internet companies, which stand to benefit as more Americans get online.

Technology and equipment makers, meanwhile, are counting on a multibillion-dollar market for advanced wireless devices to transmit and receive signals, including laptops, personal digital assistants and TV set-top boxes.

Microsoft said the FCC vote “ushers in a new era of wireless broadband innovation.”

The vote came over the objections of the nation’s big TV broadcasters, which argue that using the fallow spectrum to deliver wireless Internet access could disrupt their over-the-air signals.

Manufacturers and users of wireless microphones — including sports leagues, church leaders and performers of all stripes — have also raised concerns about interference.

The next step for the main opponent, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), could be a lawsuit to block the FCC plan.

NAB had no immediate comment.

Four commissioners voted to approve the plan, with one commissioner — Republican Deborah Tate — dissenting in part. Among her concerns, Tate raised questions about how potential interference problems would be handled.

Last month, a technical report by FCC engineers concluded that interference could be eliminated with the use of wireless transmitter devices that rely on spectrum-sensing and “geolocation” technologies to detect nearby broadcast signals.

The FCC plan will allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband after the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, which will free up additional wireless spectrum.

That space could also be used for improved communications networks to connect police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders.

Supporters say the vacant spaces between TV channels — which would be available for free, unlicensed use, as Wi-Fi is — are particularly well-suited to providing broadband since they can penetrate walls, carry a great deal of data and reach a wide geographic area.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, one of three Republicans on the commission, called white spaces “a very valuable national asset.”

Sprint, Clearwire

deal wins approval

Also Tuesday, the FCC voted unanimously to allow Sprint Nextel to spin off and merge its new WiMax wireless broadband network with that of Clearwire, which already has a WiMax-like network in parts of the country.

Google, Intel and a group of cable companies are investing billions into the $14.6 billion venture, which will carry Clearwire’s name.

Clearwire, based in Kirkland, was founded in 2003 by wireless entrepreneur Craig McCaw.

WiMax technology is similar to cellular service in that it requires towers and broadcasts a signal over licensed airwaves to a modem.