After a year of dithering, controversy and retro-thinking government meddling, the FCC has finally begun the process of enabling new whitespace broadband Wi-Fi devices. Good news. But if it makes you scratch your head, then let us explain it.
Remember the big analog TV switch off? Of course you do, it was controversial enough by itself. One major upshot of the switch to digital TV broadcasting is that the radio frequencies that those hundred of analog telly channels used for transmission are now empty. Tune in to them with the right gear, and all you'll see now is background white noise. These frequencies are thus officially "white space," vacant slots ready for someone to utilize.
These gaps are perfect for new Wi-fi devices that could access the Internet via new wireless broadband hubs--essentially the mechanism that would enable all those promising-sounding plans for free national Wi-fi. So it's good news that late last week the FCC voted to start up a database to track where existing television and radio signals use up portions of the radio spectrum next to white space gaps. This is the first step to making whitespace useable by new wireless devices: The idea is that when you switch on a white space device, it checks where it is in the country by using GPS, looks up the existing occupied radio frequencies, and starts using the available white space to transmit and receive digital wireless signals.
The FCC's also appointing database administrators to manage the system and keep them relevant and useful--the TV band databases will actually be privately owned and operated. The idea is that the system will be funded by TV companies and other fixed-transmission enterprises who'll pay a fee to register their use of a particular portion of the radio spectrum.
Why should you care about this? Because it's the green light for a whole new bunch of novel wireless systems. Obviously the broadband wireless access issue is the most obviously promising use, but since the whitespace is available for whoever would like to use it you can bet there'll be a number of innovative uses that surface that we can't even guess at yet.