Big vote: FCC approves white-space Internet broadband

November 05, 2008 10:54 AM EST
Obama won the election, but for technology, in the short run at least, the even bigger voting news was that the FCC, by a vote of five to zero, had unanimously approved the conditional unlicensed use of white-space television spectrum.

White space, the 700-MHz spectrum that's being freed up as TV channels switch from fat analog signals to thinner digital transmissions, has the potential to be used for many important uses. As Larry Page, co-founder of Google, wrote, "We will soon have "Wi-Fi on steroids" since these spectrum signals have much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations resulting in better coverage at lower cost."

This is more though than just Wi-Fi on steroids. This is the opening of a new era of broadband. Today, most of us at home use either cable, DSL or, God help us, modems to connect with the Internet. Cable can be fast, but its speed is cut by the number of subscribers on any given line. DSL delivers OK performance, and as for modems, the less said the better.

Even as its best, cable at about 20Mbps, though today's Internet demands even more bandwidth. It's not just file-sharing with BitTorrent and the like that's grabbing bandwidth. We're moving to IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) with devices like the Apple TV, Netflix Player, and TiVo. Even the fastest Internet connections are stressed by 720p HDTV for these devices, and with 1080p HDTV just around the corner, our last mile bandwidth infrastructure simply isn't up to the challenge.

Besides just the technology limitations, the current broadband providers, like Comcast, are capping bandwidth. Just when users need more bandwidth, the providers are trying to cut the supply now.

Mobile WiMax is beginning to address some of those concerns. Sprint, with the support of Google and Intel, has started launching its Xohm network. We need more though and that's where the white space spectrum comes in.

700MHz signals have greater range and penetration than the higher frequencies used by Mobile WiMax and conventional Wi-Fi. After all, television stations have effective transmission ranges of dozens of miles as compared to a few miles, Mobile WiMax, or a hundred yards, Wi-Fi. This means that it will cost far less to build a white-space Internet last mile service since it requires far fewer antennas and ground-stations.

How fast will it be? We really don't know yet. It will depend on the implementations. I won't be surprised though to see multi-channel, MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output,) white-space 'modems' in a few years delivering 40Mbps speed. As someone who now lives in western North Carolina and was raised in West Virginia, I really want to see this happen.

In the rural areas of the country any broadband can be impossible to get. Over a year ago I had to fight BellSouth, now AT&T, all the way up to the president's office to get a promised 3Mbps DSL connection. If I, who knows the Internet and datacomm backwards and forward, had to go to that much trouble, imagine what it must be like for a regular guy!

Besides just opening up rural areas for broadband, anything that delivers higher speed, and competes with the existing broadband providers with their caps and restrictions has to be a good thing. The U.S. has dropped to the second-tier of Internet using countries. It's time all of us were shifted up to faster Internet speeds and the freeing up of the 700Mhz spectrum will be a big help in that direction.