On January 26th the FCC designated nine companies to act as database administrators for licensing television white space. None of the nine companies are household names with the exception of Google, who has been a key promoter of the project. The FCC further noted that it favored the database model for future frequency licensing.
This topic has not been widely reported and few people know even what television white space is. Although there are many steps still to be taken, this may be the most important new development in communications since cell phones. I describe the technology, background and ramifications in this article.
In 2009, television stations converted to digital signals. Television white space generally refers to the now-available frequencies that arising because of this analog to digital conversion. Obviously, the ’empty’ stations in your area are different than the ’empty’ stations somewhere else. A geographic database is needed to know that for any particular place what frequencies are being used and what are available. The FCC recently ruled that all nine companies that asked for the right could administer their own copy of the database, but that they have to share. That might seem like a prescription for disaster but a big part of the Internet — DNS — already works that way. DNS is the database that tells your browser when you ask for fulcrum.com, it is at a particular numeric location. There is no one DNS server but a huge number of them constantly sharing any changes with each other.
So who will get all of this spectrum and how will they use it? Here is where the TV White space may be entirely different than prior FCC spectrum licensing. Previously, the FCC decided beforehand the permitted purpose of a spectrum would be and then held a high-stakes auction to determine the winner. This meant that a company had to win the spectrum before even beginning to develop it. That made lead times long and maybe the best solution didn’t win the auction. What Google is proposing instead is a near-real-time auction of the bandwidth, much the way companies currently bid in real time for Google ad placement. As an individual wireless service provider in an individual community won or lost bandwidth, it would send a signal to some or all of its recievers to switch to the new channel.
Google is describing its vision for TV White Space as ‘Wi-Fi on Steroids’. Current Wi-Fi runs on a frequency that was thrown open to low-power household appliances because it was succeptible to interference from microwave ovens and cannot penetrate walls well. Television stations by comparison cover many square miles from a single antenna. Because a network connection has to be two-way the transmitters will need be closer than that, however the ability to blanket a community with wireless broadband will be much easier to accomplish. Once you have an internet connection, any number of communication forms: video, voice, etc. can be carried. The internet in 2011 and beyond is not just a communication media, it is the grand unification theory of communication media. It is telephone. It is television. It is radio. It is text. It is games. And with TV white space it may truly be everywhere.
Many people have come to view the FCC as either prudish content policemen searching for f-words and wardrobe malfunctions, or overzealous regulators trying to ‘take over the internet’. This however is an example of the real work of the FCC, and federal regulation at its best: setting the rules that will make it possible for private companies to make a ton of money bringing new capabilities in communication, information, and entertainment.