FCC's Super WiFi Spectrum Plan Has Big Potential


The Federal Communications Commission is poised to open up a prime chunk of wireless radio frequencies that could soon be used to blanket towns with broadband Internet access. The FCC is expected to vote on Sept. 23 to open up so-called "white spaces" -- the wireless spectrum between TV channels -- for public use.

"We're going to do something big here," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Bloomberg. "This is very high-quality spectrum." The spectrum -- which is unlicensed and available for anyone to use -- is considered valuable because it can travel longer than WiFi and penetrate structures. Thus, the spectrum has been referred to as "WiFi on steroids," or in the chairman's more politically correct phrasing, "Super-WiFi."

Microsoft, Google Abuzz With Spectrum

Whatever you want to call it, tech watchers are buzzing about the new spectrum, and big companies are getting ready to take advantage of it. Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Motorola (MOT) and Nokia (NOK) are among the companies that have advocated opening up the spectrum, Rebecca Arbogast, a managing director at Stifel Nicolaus, wrote in a recent note to clients.

Microsoft, for example, has already set up two towers using the spectrum that it says cover its entire 500-acre Redmond, Wash., campus. (Thousands of WiFi routers would be needed to cover the same area.)

Arbogest said some of the benefits could be "enhanced corporate campus, hospital, school, and in-home networking, similar to the current Wi-Fi systems, but with better building/wall penetration."

Google has been particularly vocal in calling for the spectrum to be opened. That's because "Google could put up 10 transmitters and blanket all of Silicon Valley," says Chris Riley, Policy Council at Free Press, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

What would that mean? "If Google wanted, they could totally uproot the entire existing telecommunications infrastructure of Silicon Valley," he said. "I don't think they want to do that, and I don't think they're going to do that. But it is now possible."

Still Several Years From Reality

More likely, Riley says, are things like local community bulletin boards or coverage for small towns or universities. "A small town could afford to put up white-space transmitters, and you could wire your town for peanuts," he says. "if you're not getting fiber roll-out from Verizon, you can take matters into your own hands."

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Public interest groups are guardedly optimistic about the proposal as they wait to see the final details. White spaces have been on these groups' wish list for some time, and Genachowski is eager to deliver some results heading into the midterm election.

With the FCC set to vote in favor of the proposal this month -- after a two-year process -- consumers still have a year or two before they see the benefits, Riley says, which remain largely unknown.

"We had no idea what WiFi would do when the FCC opened up that spectrum," says Riley. "We had no idea how awesome it would be. This is kind of like that."