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Universal White Spaces: Moving Beyond the TV Bands

The FCC’s recent decision allowing license-exempt access to TV White Spaces, i.e. unused TV channels, is a small but very important step in spectrum policy. But, more important than the TV bands, is the policy approach and the fact that it was adopted in the face of extreme lobbying by well established vested interests.

As I’ve argued in the past, TV spectrum is not as valuable as people think. It’s apparently desirable propagation characteristics are a function of 20th century technology, not of the physics of electromagnetic radiation. As radio technology progresses we’ll find a lot more use for higher frequencies (2 GHz - 10 GHz). If nothing else, there’s a lot more spectrum available higher up, and that makes it easier to send a lot more data, for example 10 Gbps links instead of 100-300 Mbps (today’s Wi-Fi) or 1-8 Mbps (today’s mobile broadband).

Even more than in the TV bands, most of that higher frequency spectrum is unused most of the time even in urban areas. This is the wireless problem of the 21st century. Based on radio technology of 1900-1930, we gave out government guaranteed monopolies on almost all wireless spectrum—monopolies which make less and less sense in the light of 21st century technology and never made sense given basic electromagnetic theory. As a result of these spectrum licenses (monopolies), most of our wireless spectrum is completely unused.

The FCC’s TV white spaces order is a major step in getting access to this wasted national resource! Yes, there are decades of work ahead, but the white spaces order gives us a viable political approach to breaking open other bands. Looking back 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll remember the TV white spaces order as the first step in remaking our national spectrum policy.

By Brough Turner, Founder & CTO at netBlazr

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