FCC vote on "white spaces" to be delayed?

Old media and new media are throwin' down.

Published October 24, 2008 2:25PM (EDT)

You know how when you turn on a regular broadcast TV and sometimes (usually on the higher channels) all you get is snow, or just white noise? Nearly everywhere in the country has at least some of that. It's what's known in the telecom world as "white space." Essentially, it's unused spectrum. Instead of having it go to waste, as it does now, that spectrum could be used -- for a new type of Internet access (think WiFi, but better).

The Federal Communications Commission recently completed a years-long study examining whether using white spaces for something else would in fact disrupt television broadcasts or wireless microphone signals. There were months of FCC field testing -- your tax dollars at work! The conclusion? That group of commishes appears ready to approve the opening up of white space when they meet for a vote on Nov. 4. Even FCC chairman Kevin Martin said he supports opening up white spaces.

So everything's cool, right? Everybody wins? Companies like Motorola and Dell get to make hardware devices that could possibly change how and where we use the Internet? Consumers win because we potentially could get more pervasive and faster Internet access?

As telecom legal scholar Susan Crawford wrote on her blog last week:

Unlicensed uses could unleash the creation of an entire ecosystem of new devices and new uses, as we've seen in the "junk band" use of wireless hotspots. With machines making their own etiquette decisions (subject to power-level certification by the FCC), the capacity of the white spaces (potentially enormous) could be used far more effectively. This could provide a much-needed end-run around last-mile bottlenecks, particularly for mobile and rural users.

Ah ah ah, not so fast, say the broadcasting incumbents.

On Oct. 17, the National Association of Broadcasters filed an emergency request to halt the upcoming Nov. 4 vote, much to the chagrin of white space proponents like Google. On Wednesday night, the NAB issued a press release claiming that tech giants like Google and Microsoft are actually trying to "destroy television" by arguing for the liberation of white spaces.

Thursday, Wired's Epicenter had the exactly appropriate response: Huh?

Various tech lobbying groups, including the Wireless Innovation Alliance (an industry consortium that includes Google, HP, Intel and others) and Free Press, a media reform group based in Washington, D.C., were baffled by the NAB's actions.

Free Press' executive director, Josh Silver, in a prepared statement called the NAB's Wednesday release "angry ranting," and WIA called it stretching "the limits of reason and reality."

Google has renewed its call for its two-month-old campaign called "Free the Airwaves," designed to get the public involved to petition the FCC such that these white spaces can indeed remain open and usable to all.

And late Thursday, eight members of Congress got in on the act, reported the Associated Press:

"Priority must be given to making the final decision a transparent and fair process," the letter said. "To justify a major spectrum policy decision on a 400-page technical report without a formal open comment period appears to violate this very basic premise of good government."

The letter was signed by Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.; Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill.; Jon Porter, R-Nev.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; William "Lacy" Clay, D-Mo.; Jim Cooper, D-Tenn; and Robert Brady, D-Penn.

When major tech companies, public interest groups and tech policy authorities like Susan Crawford and Tim Wu are for something, and the only group against is a major corporate lobby, I think you know which way I lean on this one.

By Cyrus Farivar

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