Amidst all the recent net neutrality brouhaha, Silicon Valley pulled out a little-noticed victory at Thursday's FCC hearings that could lead to better Wi-Fi service in more places.
While the media were focused on the commission's vote to propose new rules that could result in Internet "fast lanes" for certain content, the FCC voted 3-2 to set aside three channels of television airwaves for unlicensed use, which Google, Microsoft and the like could potentially use to beam the Internet to consumers in new ways.
How does somebody get a license for airwaves? Is that like getting a license for a car?
One of the less glamorous jobs of the FCC is to issue licenses for parts of the electromagnetic spectrum — the radio, for example. Say you're listening to the radio in New York City. You turn your radio dial, flipping past numbered stations, until you find the station that announces it's "98.7 Kiss FM." Not coincidentally, the radio dial tells you that 98.7 Kiss FM is located on the 98.7 megahertz band.
The FCC has licensed 98.7 Kiss FM to broadcast in New York City on airwaves moving at 98.7 megahertz. The license gives the station the exclusive right to broadcast on that frequency in New York; without that license, other entities could broadcast on that same band, potentially interfering with 98.7 Kiss FM's broadcast.
Television, mobile and many other types of airwave frequencies are licensed by the FCC in a similar fashion. The FCC usually auctions off these licenses at so-called spectrum auctions, which are often won by larger, established companies with a lot of money. The FCC actually set aside the slices of television spectrum as part of restructuring rules for one such upcoming auction.
If interference is likely with unlicensed airwaves, why do big tech companies want them?
Tech companies like Microsoft and Google have argued that, while crowded, the openness of unlicensed airwaves encourages innovation, as those with relatively little capital get new opportunities to experiment with spectrum.
Aparna Sridhar, a lawyer for Google, posted an appreciative reaction to the FCC's decision on the company's public policy blog:
Faster and cheaper access to online services drives usage of those services and thus demand for all forms of network access, creating a virtuous [sic] cycle of investment. Access to new, lower-frequency TV band spectrum could accelerate this process and create more unlicensed service options, allowing better indoor coverage and service in rural and underserved areas.
When the FCC cordoned off a big chunk of spectrum for unlicensed use in 1985, several innovative products emerged, including Wi-Fi. Even today, Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum to broadcast, which is why some people worry about interference with their Wi-Fi signal.
In the last few years, industry observers have started to raise concerns that congestion on currently available Wi-Fi bandwidths will lead to an infrastructure-crippling "spectrum crunch." The newly freed bandwidths should help to relieve some of that competition for signal in the short term. And among the new technologies that companies have proposed for the space is a "super Wi-Fi" that could cover much larger geographical areas than the existing version of Wi-Fi.
So who's against this?
Television broadcasters mostly. Because the FCC is carving unlicensed bandwidths out of the television space, currently licensed broadcasters will have less so-called white space as a buffer between their frequencies. The National Association of Broadcasters on Thursday expressed its disappointment in a statement after the decision, expressing concerns about the technology that's being proposed to limit the interference with local signals.
Uh, so…is this a good thing or a bad thing?
It may ultimately be a moot point. Jason Perlow at ZDnet predicts that broadcast TV as we know it will probably be dead in less than seven years. And in the meantime, with more unlicensed spectrum available, companies can experiment with technologies that could prove to be the next Wi-Fi.