WASHINGTON — Federal regulators on Tuesday approved the largest ever expansion of wireless Internet access, unanimously backing a controversial plan to allow a new generation of devices to use the empty airwaves between television channels to go online.
Dubbed "Wi-Fi on steroids" by its supporters in the high-tech industry, the plan promises to offer wireless Internet service across America -- most likely for free -- and spur new systems for transmitting video and other data between devices in homes.
It overcame staunch opposition from the entertainment industry, which is worried that the Web-surfing devices will interfere with TV broadcasts and wireless microphones.
Although expected to be slower and possibly less secure than commercial broadband services from cable and phone companies, the new Internet connections will ride on the highest-quality broadcast airwaves, which are able to carry signals long distances and easily penetrate trees and walls.
For decades, those government-owned airwaves have been reserved for TV stations. But the Federal Communications Commission, in a 5-0 vote intended to increase the reach of high-speed Internet access, approved a plan advocated by public interest groups and technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., to allow the use of the spectrum by new laptops, mobile phones and other gadgets with built-in equipment that are expected to hit the market in about two years.
"Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services they may have only dreamed about before," FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said.
The high-tech firms say the so-called white spaces of the airwaves that lie between the broadcast TV channels have the potential to provide revolutionary new wireless services that people could use for free -- unlike the spectrum leased by the government to cellphone companies, which then charge customers to access it.
Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates personally lobbied FCC commissioners to open up access to the vacant channels, which range from about a third of the TV airwaves in major cities such as Los Angeles to three-quarters of the airwaves in rural areas.
These companies will have to build the infrastructure to connect the airwaves to the Internet, such as installing transmitters on existing cellular towers. Although they could charge users for those connections -- in the same way that some coffee shops charge for access to their Wi-Fi hot spots -- Google and others are expected to offer them for free, recouping the cost through sales of white-space-enabled devices and online advertising.
"This is a clear victory for Internet users and anyone who wants good wireless communications," Google co-founder Larry Page said.
Broadcasters fiercely fought it, warning that the new devices could cause some viewers to lose their TV signals because of interference.
The issue is of particular concern because broadcasters must switch to all-digital signals in February. With traditional analog TV stations, interference causes static or fuzziness. But broadcasters say digital pictures can freeze or be lost entirely if another signal is broadcast on or near the same channel.
"The commission chose a path that imperils America's television reception in order to satisfy the 'free' spectrum demands of Google and Microsoft," said David Donovan, president of the Assn. for Maximum Service Television, an engineering trade group of TV broadcasters.
Representatives of sports leagues, musicians and large churches have also complained about potential interference from the new Internet devices and lobbied against the changes. They worry, for example, that one of these devices in a concert-goer's pocket would interfere with the performer's wireless microphone.
The FCC's field tests of early prototypes provided by Microsoft and other companies produced mixed results, with some of the devices failing to sense and avoid broadcast signals. Broadcasters said those results showed that the technology wasn't ready.
But FCC officials said the tests showed that it was possible for devices to use the airwaves without interference.
The devices will operate at low power and will only be able to use channels 21 to 51, where there are fewer TV stations.
The FCC will give preference to devices that use technology to determine a user's location and then avoid TV channels operating there based on a special database, rather than devices that try to sense and avoid TV signals. Devices that use sensing technology will have to go through more rigorous field testing before being certified.
The FCC also will create a safe zone around large sporting and performance venues, such as the Los Angeles Coliseum and New York's Broadway theater district. The new mobile devices in those areas won't have access to channels used by wireless microphones.
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Making use of 'white spaces'
How it works
Yet-to-be-developed devices will have free access to the empty airwaves between broadcast TV channels. To avoid causing interference with broadcasts and wireless microphones, the low-power gadgets will use geo-location technology and a database of TV stations and large sporting and entertainment venues.
Rivals Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. worked together to push the government to open up the airwaves. Both could benefit from easier access to their ad-based Web services. They and other hardware and software makers also could sell new mobile devices and laptops that use the airwaves.
TV broadcasters fear that the devices will interfere with their signals, costing viewers. Sports leagues, concert venues and other users of wireless microphones worry that the devices will cause interference.
Source: Times research