“Super WiFi” on verge of approval

September 13, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission looks set to finally approve plans to allow former TV frequencies to be used for high-powered wireless broadband. The “white space” frequencies are those freed up by the switch-off of analog TV signals.

Longstanding plans will go to an FCC vote on 23 September, but chairman Julius Genachowski appears confident it will pass. (Given that there are only five voting commissioners, it’s rare that the outcome of a vote comes as a surprise.)

While there are plenty of possible uses for the frequencies, extremely powerful wireless broadband is arguably the most attractive. That’s because signals broadcast on those frequencies can carry a lot of information, travel long distances and easily get through barriers such as walls, hence the references to “WiFi on steroids”.

Unlike mobile broadband over cellphone networks, there won’t be any fees or licensing requirements to broadcast signals: for regulatory purposes, it will be treated more like Wi-Fi.

The main reason it’s taken so long to get the plans ready for a vote is that officials have been trying to find a way to avoid conflicts with existing signals: the precise frequencies available vary depending on the TV market concerned.

The solution is a national database of available frequencies, with service providers either manually configuring devices to find free space, or fitting them with GPS tools to do so automatically.

That’s still a source of contention with broadcasters. They want a requirement for all devices to be set up so that they scan potential frequencies and avoid those already being used. The FCC doesn’t appear to have that requirement in its final proposal.

The database will also include arenas and theaters that use wireless microphones, to minimize the potential for conflict. Those who use wireless mics on a smaller scale are likely to be allocated specific channels.

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