Reporting from Washington — Federal regulators on Thursday approved rules for the use of unlicensed airwaves that could make new Internet service such as "super Wi-Fi" more readily available to consumers and businesses.
Unused airwaves, known as "white spaces," are set aside between television channels to prevent interference. The spectrum space is especially valuable because it could be used to create stronger wireless Internet signals that easily pass through walls and travel a longer distance than other unlicensed bands.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 5 to 0 to adopt a series of rules that determine how white spaces can and can't be used. The decision frees up the most unlicensed spectrum in 25 years and could spur billions of dollars in economic activity, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.
"When we unleash American ingenuity, great things happen," he said.
Unlicensed spectrum is already available for a number of uses. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology operate in unlicensed areas, as do many consumer electronic devices, such as remote controls.
Although the agency approved the use of white spaces in November 2008, the FCC is only now establishing specific guidelines after several years of contentious negotiations with supporters and opponents. Yet the details of the ruling are unlikely to please everyone.
The nation's broadcasters, for example, have resisted the FCC's effort to open up white spaces, arguing it could interfere with their broadcasts, particularly the use of wireless microphones by announcers and producers.
Supporters of opening up white spaces — mainly consumer activists, Internet firms and computer companies — say the spectrum could be used to provide a host of new services over wireless broadband connections.
White spaces, for example, could supplant weaker Wi-Fi technology to build superior wireless networks on college campuses, in hospitals and in other large complexes. Wi-Fi signals don't travel very far or penetrate walls quite as easily and are costlier to extend over larger areas.
A Microsoft Corp. study, for example, suggests that the use of white spaces could boost economic activity by several billion dollars a year. Microsoft and Google Inc. helped lead the fight to make white spaces available.
"Unlicensed spectrum is no longer just about garage-door openers," said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, adding that it could spur innovation that boosts the broader U.S. economy.
The agency's new rules aim to prevent interference by reducing but maintaining buffers near broadcast channels, protecting the narrow slice of spectrum used by wireless microphones and requiring white-space users to register their plans for using the unlicensed airwaves.
The FCC also assigned to the agency's Office of Engineering and Technology the responsibility to create a database that would track who is using what part of the white spaces. The database would help the FCC monitor and resolve any problems with interference.
Bartash writes for MarketWatch.com/McClatchy.