Tapping unused TV white spaces could help bring wireless connectivity at speeds ranging from 15 to 20 Mbps.

Tapping unused TV white spaces could help bring wireless connectivity at speeds ranging from 15 to 20 Mbps.

A new flavor of Wi-Fi, with longer range and better wall-piercing power, could show up in wireless gadgets a year from now if the Federal Communications Commission works out the last details of new spectrum rules that long have been in the making.

Nearly two years ago, the FCC voted to open up the airwaves between broadcast TV channels—so-called “white spaces”—for wireless broadband connections that would work like Wi-Fi on steroids. But wrangling over key technical details, including concerns about interference with TV signals and wireless microphones, has prevented exploitation of these spaces.

On Sept. 23, the FCC plans to vote on rules meant to resolve those issues. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski predicts electronics makers will jump at this “super Wi-Fi” technology, as the agency calls it, and make it just as popular as conventional Wi-Fi.

“We’re hoping history will repeat itself,” Genachowski said. “White spaces are a big deal for consumers and for investment and innovation.”

The commission’s plan would make white spaces available for free, without specific permission, just as it already does for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Last year’s transition from analog to digital television broadcasting freed up enough spectrum to make this possible, but the plan faced serious opposition from TV broadcasters worried that their signals could be disrupted. Wireless microphone manufacturers and users—including churches, schools, theaters, karaoke bars, and all types of performers—also raised concerns about interference.

To address these issues, the FCC has been working with broadcasters and white-spaces proponents to map TV channels across the country. The current FCC plan would require installers to configure white-spaces devices to use a frequency that’s vacant in their area—a white space. Alternatively, the devices themselves could figure out their location using such technologies as GPS; a database would then help the devices figure out the right frequencies for their area.

In addition, the agency hopes to set aside at least two channels for minor users of wireless microphones. And it plans to put big wireless microphone users, such as Broadway theaters and sports leagues, in the database, so devices would know to avoid their airwaves.

The upcoming FCC vote is a welcome development for some of the country’s biggest technology companies, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Dell Inc. The tech industry hopes that white-spaces networks will create a multibillion market for advanced wireless devices, including laptops, set-top boxes, and smart phones.

“We’ve all been chomping at the bit in the tech community … to get going with white spaces,” said Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington-based counsel for telecommunications and media. “These are highly valuable, open, unused airwaves.”

If all goes according to plan, Liam Quinn, chief technology officer for client business at Dell, expects to see “proof of concept” products at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, followed by early products in about a year and mass production a year after that.

White spaces are particularly well suited to providing broadband, tech companies say, because they can penetrate walls, have plenty of network capacity, and are able to cover large areas. According to Quinn, the signals can travel several miles and deliver internet speeds ranging from 15 to 20 megabits per second—as fast as a cable modem.

Technology companies envision all sorts of uses for white spaces: providing emergency services in disaster zones and creating home wireless networks that can send video between television sets and computers, to name just a few possibilities.

Assuming the challenges of interference with wireless microphones can be worked out, the technology also could prove useful for schools to deliver wireless connections across their buildings or campuses that have enough bandwidth to support video and other robust applications. And it could be particularly useful for delivering wireless connectivity within older buildings where concrete walls and other barriers impede the strength of wireless signals.

About the Author:

Dennis Pierce

A founding editor of eSchool Media, Dennis Pierce has spent the last 16 years as an education journalist covering issues such as national policy, school reform, and educational technology. Dennis began as Assistant Editor and is now Editor in Chief, overseeing all content and production for two national news magazines, five weekly newsletters, two daily newsletters, and three websites—with a total reach of nearly 1 million education leaders. Before joining eSchool Media, Dennis taught high school English, math, and SAT prep. He graduated cum laude from Yale University. Follow Dennis via Twitter: @eSN_Dennis