Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

FCC Approves "Wi-Fi On Steroids"


It finally happened. Nearly a year after the FCC began enabling white space broadband Wi-Fi devices, the organization has officially made the so-called "white space spectrum"—radio frequencies previously used for analog television transmissions—available for wireless broadband. The frequencies will be both free and and unlicensed.

White space is, according to Google co-founder Larry Page, like Wi-Fi on steroids. At first, the white space spectrum may be used to expand our existing technology—turning a handful of wireless hotspots on a college campus into one giant wireless signal field, for example. But eventually, the newly available frequencies could have a number of other applications: expanding wireless coverage in rural areas that are far from cable routes, wirelessly connecting vehicles so that they can alert drivers to traffic jams, and personalized ads that pick up on signals from your smartphone.

White space also has major implications for the smart grid. Google and Spectrum Bridge recently launched the country's first smart grid wireless network trial in Plumas-Sierra County, California with an experimental license from the FCC. As part of the trial, the companies are sending data from smart electric meters to utilities via white spaces. The trial has allowed the country's local utility, Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative & Telecommunication, to manage the electrical grid's power flow remotely. Now that the FCC has officially approved use of white space, Plumas-Sierra could become home to the first real white space smart grid network.

The FCC's move isn't without its detractors. Broadcasters believe that white space devices could interfere with sports leagues, TV signals, and other applications that rely on wireless microphones. But the FCC's new rules specify that white space devices can't be used near major entertainment venues, near TV broadcast stations, or in other specified "safe zones." In any case, there is no stopping the white space gold rush that is about to begin.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

Add New Comment


  • Martin Suter


    In February 2009, I blogged about using "Wi-Fi on steroids" for white spaces. The comments are worth considering, given the prominence you are placing on the simile.

    White Spaces: Wi-Fi on Drugs? (

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I applaud the FCC for opening up additional unlicensed spectrum for Internet use, but “white space” has set a new record for going from zero to the Peak of Inflated Expectations!

    When Larry Page speaks of Google’s vision of “Wi-Fi on steroids,” it has a nice ring to it, but where have we heard that before? Hold on. Maybe it was three years ago, when Intel touted that WiMAX “was like Wi-Fi on steroids” and demonstrated a point-to-point link streaming video over 12 miles. In the same article, Clearwire had “introduced a precursor to WiMAX in four cities in Florida, Texas, and Minnesota, and hopes to use Intel's technology to add 16 more cities by year end.” Fast-forward three years, and Clearwire WiMAX service is available in Baltimore and Portland, and promises download speeds of “up to 6mbps,” hardly steroid like performance.

    What does it mean to be “on steroids” anyways? Does it mean higher data rates? Increased range? Greater capacity?

    In wireless, things are seldom cut and dry.

    Many have commented on the increased range of a radio operating in the 50-700MHz bands as opposed to the 2.4GHz or 5GHz unlicensed bands. Technically, this is true, and these propagation characteristics are of value if there is a wide area to cover, and a relatively few devices. To achieve this, the base stations will look more like cell towers than wireless LAN APs, due to the very long (6m at 50MHz!) wavelength at these low frequencies. However, propagation is a double-edged sword. In environments where capacity is more of a consideration, frequency re-use is an imperative, and white space propagation will work against you.

    Many have commented on the ability of 50-700MHz to penetrate walls. The answer here is, “Yes, the free space loss in these bands will be anything from 11 to 32dB better than Wi-Fi, so outdoor range in open areas will be much improved. And yes, the attenuation through materials such as concrete will be improved (maybe up to 10dB) but the long wavelength will make aperture effects -- like going through windows -- worse than at 2.4GHz.” Bottom line -- the jury is still out!

    With respect to data rates, it is important to appreciate that the channel widths in white space are 6MHz as opposed to the 20MHz channels found with Wi-Fi in the unlicensed bands today. For this reason alone, it will be impossible for user performance to approach that which is currently available today. Then when macro-cell architectures are factored in, it won’t even be close. So much for Wi-Fi on steroids, Mr. Commissioner!

    The industry does itself a disservice when it uses sound bites to articulate a position. Had Larry Page or Kevin Martin said, “Television white space will allow the Open Internet to bridge the Digital Divide, by bringing the web to rural areas across America,” it would have been equally compelling and more accurate.

    As it stands, the Gartner Hype Cycle lives on with “white space,” but we’d all be better off if more of an effort was made to temper expectations with realistic dialogue. The eventual disillusionment would be less acute.

    Drugs make for bad similes. We tell our kids that steroids are bad. They’re bad for athletes and they’re equally bad for technology.

    That’s my .02!

    Martin Suter