National Wi-Fi plan moves one step closer

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said on Oct. 10 the agency’s plans to provide free national broadband internet access will not cause significant interference with phone companies’ networks, but at least one wireless carrier disagrees.

Phone company T-Mobile has warned in recent months that the FCC’s plans to bring free Wi-Fi to the United States could interfere with certain frequencies on the company’s $4 billion Advanced Wireless Services-1 spectrum.

The FCC rebutted these claims in a report, which said the nationwide Wi-Fi network would "not necessarily result in interference." The agency’s report brings the promise of a nationwide wireless broadband network one step closer to reality.

T-Mobile officials said they want the FCC to reevaluate the plan and open the proposal to public comment once again.

"A reasonable comment period would give the public a chance to review those conclusions before the Commission acts in reliance on them," Thomas Sugrue, the company’s vice president of government affairs, wrote to the FCC.

The FCC is expected to unveil rules for the free Wi-Fi network by the end of the year. Parts of the new spectrum could be auctioned off in 2009, officials said. Under FCC guidelines, companies that win the spectrum would be forced to filter adult content and cover 95 percent of the U.S. population in the next decade.

Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced Oct. 15 that the agency is considering using unused portions of television airwaves–known as "white space"–for broadband service. 

Martin’s proposal appeals to public interest groups and many of the nation’s biggest technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which hope it will bring affordable, high-speed internet connections to more Americans.

"No one should ever underestimate the potential that new technologies and innovations may bring to society," Martin said in a statement.

Shure Inc., a manufacturer of wireless microphones, has also raised concerns about interference with audio systems at concerts and sporting events.

Martin issued his proposal ahead of the official release of a technical report by FCC engineers concluding that potential interference could be eliminated with the use of wireless transmitter devices that rely on spectrum-sensing and "geo-location" technologies to detect and avoid nearby broadcast signals.

Martin, one of three Republicans on the five-member FCC, circulated his proposal to his colleagues ahead of a Nov. 4 vote on the plan. He wants to allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband following the upcoming transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, which will free up additional parts of the wireless spectrum. That space could be used to deliver high-speed internet connections as well as improved communications networks to connect police officers, fire fighters, and other emergency responders.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) quickly came out against the FCC’s white space proposal. The groups said some tests conducted by FCC engineers caused wireless devices to malfunction. Seventy members of Congress have also expressed concern over the fallout from using white space.

"It would appear that the FCC is misinterpreting the actual data collected by their own engineers," said NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton, adding that the FCC’s 149-page report "raises troubling questions."

Supporters of the plan say the vacant spaces between television channels are particularly well suited to providing broadband since they can penetrate walls, carry a great deal of data, and reach a wide geographic area.

"Freeing up these powerful airwaves will create a boom in innovative technologies and expand the opportunities for citizens to communicate with one another and the rest of the world," said Ben Scott, policy director for the advocacy group Free Press.

Scott Blake Harris, counsel to the White Spaces Coalition, added that harnessing white spaces will create a multibillion market for advanced wireless devices to transmit and receive signals, including laptops, personal digital assistants, and set-top boxes. Members of the White Spaces Coalition include Microsoft, Google, Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Phillips Electronics.

Martin’s white space proposal is one of several in which he is pushing to use wireless technology to bring affordable broadband to parts of the country that lack high-speed internet service. He also wants to require telecommunications carriers to use the Universal Service fund, which subsidizes phone service in underserved areas, to invest in broadband.


FCC report on white space

National Association of Broadcasters

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