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December 2, 2009

FCC moving on “white spaces” to make more spectrum usable

Harold Feld has a great post on movement at the FCC to make more spectrum available.

According to Harold, the FCC has requested proposals for databases to manage access to the “white spaces” between the frequencies assigned to TV stations. Those frequencies were left unused because analog TV originally needed lots of room between frequencies, which is why your analog stations tend to count by two’s. Plus, the switch to digital TV opened up some more frequencies. So, last year, the FCC voted 5-0 to make those frequencies available for unlicensed use. This will provide more room for innovation. It’s a very big deal.

The white spaces will be made available for fixed band devices, as well as for lower-power ad hoc usage. But, how will a device maker know what slice of spectrum is available? One approach would be to count on smart devices sensing which bands are uncongested and dynamically switch to them. But the FCC says that the sensing devices are not yet reliable enough. So, it is creating a database of white space spectrum usage. And it is allowing others to create databases as well. Those who create databases will be allowed to charge for allocating fixed spectrum and for accessing the database.

So, who gets to build and maintain these databases? How will they make money? How will they ensure accuracy? These and other questions are being left up to those who submit proposals. Harold Feld considers this to be a “good but weird” approach, since usually the FCC lays out the specifications before asking for proposals.

By the way, Harold’s preferred approach:

From my perspective, the most logical model is a non-profit operating on a non-exclusive basis and funded by the industries that benefit. The actual cost of running and managing this is pocket change to the likes of Google, Microsoft and Motorolla (which came up with this scheme in the first place). We shall have to see if they are that enlightened. But whoever is selected, it is important for the FCC to maintain a level of oversight that would prevent this from morphing into a bottleneck at some point in the future. Frankly, this is another reason why a coalition or non-profit with multiple stakeholders would be preferable to a single vendor/manager.