FCC mulls broadband service over TV airwaves

A new method of delivering broadband internet access to millions of Americans has the potential to expand greatly the number of students with broadband service at home–and it could provide a cheaper way for schools in remote areas to get online. But the method faces steep regulatory hurdles before it can become available.

Microsoft, Google, and other technology firms are bumping into resistance from television broadcasters as they seek regulatory approval to deliver high-speed internet service over unused TV airwaves.

The technology companies, which have submitted a prototype device to the Federal Communications Commission for testing, say their aim is to make broadband internet connections accessible and affordable to millions more Americans.

Broadcasters, though, fear the unproven device could interfere with TV service, and even some technology experts have reservations about how well the device will actually perform. Matters could get even more complicated, broadcasters say, when the industry switches from analog to digital signals in 2009.

At the center of this dispute are unused and unlicensed TV airwaves, part of the spectrum known as "white spaces." These white spaces are located between channels 2 and 51 on televisions that are not hooked up to satellite or cable, though use of these services would not preclude anyone from accessing the internet over unused spectrum in their region.

"This is some prime spectrum real estate," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a national, nonpartisan public interest research group, which supports using the public airwaves for internet service.

In a nutshell, the technology companies want to beam internet access through the white space and into computers and mobile devices. And they argue rural Americans would benefit greatly, because the technology enables internet service to remote areas at a fraction of the cost of cable- and telephone-based subscription services.

"This is Wi-Fi on steroids," Scott said.

Scott Blake Harris, an attorney representing a loose coalition of technology companies that typically compete with one another, said he believes the FCC should authorize this technology as long as its proponents can prove it will not disrupt TV programming.

But broadcasters want the FCC to proceed cautiously.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)–which represents more than a thousand local TV stations, as well as major broadcasters such as Walt Disney Co.’s ABC division–insists the industry is not against the new technology, only worried about unintended consequences.

"If [the technology companies] are wrong, once those devices get introduced, that means that people won’t be able to get clear television pictures," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Shure Inc., a manufacturer of wireless microphones, also has expressed concerns, saying use of white spaces for internet service could cause interference with audio systems at concerts and sporting events.

Potential pitfalls aside, proponents of the new technology–including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Philips Electronics–say it could spur innovation.

Paul Brownell, a government relations manager at Dell, said white-space spectrum could be used to stream video and audio throughout a school or home without running wires all over the place. The company is interested in building computers that would come preprogrammed to recognize internet service delivered via white space.

"These are all on the drawing board right now," he said, assuming the FCC approves unlicensed usage of white spaces.

Advocates say the white-space spectrum is too valuable to be left idle, because the television airwaves can transmit better signal quality through obstacles and to a wider geographic area. In rural areas, the new technology is an attractive alternative to phone, cable, or satellite-based internet service, because it would not require expensive new infrastructure to be built.

The lack of infrastructure is a key reason many rural areas lack high-speed internet service. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 30 percent of rural residents have high-speed internet, compared with 49 percent for suburban residents and 52 percent for urban Americans.

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