FCC decision to allow broadband wireless on open TV channels paves way for 'Wi-fi on steroids'

But benefits of 'major victory for consumers' may not be felt for several years


Technology giants such as Google, Dell and Microsoft may be thrilled over the Federal Communications Commission's decision Thursday allowing wireless broadband to run on vacant TV channels, but consumers will have to be patient.

Indeed, patience has been a necessity ever since the FCC initially proposed opening unused airwaves, or "white spaces," to wireless networks six long years ago. While the FCC eventually voted in favor in 2008, the final go-ahead was delayed due to objections from television broadcasters who argued that wireless broadband on even vacant TV stations might wreak havoc on their transmissions.

It wasn't just the broadcasters who raised red flags over the proposal. Manufacturers and users of wireless microphones also worried that another level of wireless data flying through the air would mess things up for them.

The big advantage of "white space" Wi-fi is that the signals can travel great distances and easily go through walls, like Superman. Anyone whose online work has been thwarted by an anemic wireless signal can appreciate that. Microsoft has been using the technology on its Redmond campus and reports successfully delivering Internet access for a mile, and I haven't heard any reports of glitchy code ruining Frank Sinatra night at local karaoke bars.

The FCC believes "white space" will provide much-needed relief for airwaves increasingly crowded by wireless data being accessed by laptops and smartphones. Further, FCC chair Julius Genachowski sees an opportunity to trigger a lucrative wave of innovation and investment.

Despite the FCC's long-awaited green light, don't expect to see devices using the vacant TV space on sale at Best Buy this holiday season. For starters, there will be the inevitable lawsuit from the National Association of Broadcasters, which is "reviewing" the FCC's decision. In fact, the NAB filed such a suit in February 2009. Now it moves on in the legal process, which is never swift.

Then there are other details to be worked out, including the establishment of a "national TV channel" database which manufacturers of devices that run on the TV "white spaces" would have to consult to make sure they aren't interfering with reruns of iCarly. Even this step is controversial, as someone would have to be in charge of the database. Not surprisingly, Google (among other companies) has raised its hand and volunteered to be the database boss. (Personally, I'd prefer to see someone other than Google get the job. The search giant controls enough information as it is.)

So we wait.

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