August 16, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
White-space spectrum debate rages
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Today, both the 700MHz and white-space frequencies are used to deliver analog TV service. But when broadcasters transition to digital TV service in 2009, the 700MHz spectrum, which includes broadcast channels 52 to 69, will be auctioned off. And spectrum between channels 2 to 52 will essentially lay fallow. Public policy experts see this transition to digital as a perfect opportunity to make spectrum available for new players who want to compete in the broadband market.
On their own, these slivers of wireless spectrum are not sufficient to provide enough capacity for companies to build wireless broadband services that truly compete against high-bandwidth services offered by the cable and phone companies. But combined with other pieces of spectrum, like Wi-Fi, this spectrum could provide enough capacity to deliver competitive services.
"The 700MHz spectrum is not enough to compete against a service like Verizon's Fios," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of public-interest nonprofit Media Access Project, in reference to Verizon Communications' high-capacity network featuring fiber-optic connections to the home. "It's only 62MHz of spectrum. So you're going to need a lot more. That's why it's important to provide access to licensed as well as unlicensed spectrum."
The amount of spectrum that is available in white spaces varies from market to market. In rural areas where fewer broadcasters are operating, it can provide a substantial amount of capacity. But in dense urban areas, white spaces offer far less capacity because more broadcasters are using the spectrum. For this reason, white-space spectrum could be particularly valuable for providing broadband access in rural areas, where large cable companies and telephone companies have not built wired infrastructure.
But it also could be used in urban areas. Because white-space spectrum is unlicensed and, therefore, free to anyone who wants to use it, it makes a nice complement to citywide Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi operates in the higher frequency bands of 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz. But because it's at a higher frequency, it propagates over much shorter distances and has difficulty penetrating walls and sometimes even foliage.
White-space spectrum in the analog channels, which operate between 54MHz and 698MHz, provides an inexpensive way for service providers such as EarthLink, which is building citywide Wi-Fi networks, to extend their reach and improve in-home coverage.
And now that the FCC has rejected rules requiring winners of certain 700MHz auction licenses to offer wholesale access to that spectrum, access to white-space spectrum is even more important for prospective competitors of the cable and phone companies.
"We didn't get the open access that we wanted on the 700MHz auction," Feld said. "So it makes it that much more important that new providers can access white-space spectrum."
But broadcasters say they don't think it's possible to solve the interference issues. With roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of the TV-viewing public still getting their TV service over the air, Wharton said, the risk is still too high.
"If there was ironclad proof that no person in America would lose access to over-the-air TV signals, then maybe we wouldn't have a problem with the introduction of unlicensed portable devices," he said. "But engineering studies and folks that we have talked to say the likelihood of developing a product that wouldn't interfere with TV broadcasts in large markets is nil."
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