In a move that could advance the spread of broadband internet service nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission voted Nov. 4 to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband service to more Americans.
The vote is a big victory for public-interest groups and technology companies such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which say white spaces could be used to bring broadband internet access 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. Adelstein added that white spaces could become a "third channel" to reach consumers beyond the telephone and cable networks that represent the primary competition in today’s broadband market.
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, performers, and even some educators–have also raised concerns about interference.
The next step for the main opponent, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), could be a lawsuit to stop the FCC’s plan from taking effect. 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’s plan will allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband following the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, which will free up additional wireless spectrum. That space also could be used for improved communications networks to connect police officers, firefighters, and other emergency responders.
Supporters of the plan say the vacant spaces between TV channels–which would be available for free, unlicensed use, as Wi-Fi now is–are particularly well-suited to providing broadband service, because 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."
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’s vote "ushers in a new era of wireless broadband innovation."
With partial dissents by the two Democrats on the five-member panel, the FCC also voted to approve Verizon Wireless’ planned $28 billion purchase of Alltel Corp. in a deal that will create the nation’s largest wireless carrier.
Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, plans to buy Alltel of Little Rock, Ark., for $5.9 billion, plus the assumption of $22.2 billion in debt.
The Justice Department approved the deal last week after Verizon agreed to sell assets in 22 states to address government concerns about reduced competition. The FCC is requiring the company to sell assets in five additional markets and to honor Alltel’s existing roaming agreements with other wireless carriers for four years.
In addition, the FCC voted unanimously to allow Sprint Nextel Corp. to spin off and merge its new WiMax wireless broadband network with that of Clearwire Corp., which already has a WiMax-like network in parts of the country. Google, Intel Corp., and a group of cable companies are investing billions into the $14.6 billion venture, which will carry Clearwire’s name.
The FCC was expected to vote on another plan to overhaul the way it collects fees from telecommunications carriers, but Martin pulled this item from the agenda amid mounting opposition from many corners of the industry, as well as consumer groups, Congress–and even his fellow FCC commissioners.
Martin had been seeking to reform the multibillion-dollar "intercarrier compensation" system, the byzantine menu of charges that telecom carriers pay to access each other’s networks and connect calls. Martin wanted to move toward uniform, lower rates.
His plan also included major changes to the $7 billion Universal Service Fund, the federal program that subsidizes telecom service in rural and poor communities through a surcharge on long-distance bills. (The fund also supports the $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate, the federal program that provides discounts on telecom services to eligible schools and libraries.) Among other things, Martin would have required carriers to use Universal Service money to invest in broadband networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed internet connections.
The proposed overhaul of telecom access fees had the support of the biggest phone companies, including Verizon and AT&T Inc., which have argued that the existing rules are outdated. In a statement issued Nov. 3, AT&T said that without changing the system, "our regulatory regime will remain broken and stuck with a 20th-century economic model designed for the black rotary phone."
But a coalition of competing carriers and rural phone companies feared Martin’s plan would diminish the money they get for completing phone calls to their subscribers. Consumer advocates also warned that the proposal could lead to higher phone bills–particularly for rural customers–as phone companies sought to recover lost access revenue from other sources.
And Martin’s four fellow FCC commissioners objected to addressing his proposal before seeking public comments on the issues that it raises.
In an interview, Martin lamented being unable to vote on his proposal Nov. 4, saying the ideas it raises already have been debated in Washington for years. He said the canceled vote represented "a real missed opportunity" to reform outdated regulations and extend broadband services throughout the country.
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