Tech Watch: Cheap Nationwide WiFi

Lots of news stories have been trampled by Election Day coverage, but none more nerdily exciting than Tuesday’s FCC decision to open up “white space” – or space in the 700MHz range of the wireless spectrum – for unlicensed wireless use. Imagine a new Bluetooth frequency that could rove hundreds of miles, instead of just a few feet.

Opening these airwaves will mean unprecedented access to wireless transmission for small companies and startups that can’t afford to license existing spectrum space from the government. The frequencies, which are long-range, would be perfect for broadcasting WiFi, and wouldn’t require any licensing fees from companies that use it. That will drive ubiquity, much as openness on the short-range spectrum for Bluetooth and WiFi has for those technologies.


White space is usually reserved for a buffer between TV channels, but because broadcast TV is going the way of the dodo thanks to federal mandate, the FCC has elected to open the contentious space for innovators like Google, Microsoft, Intel and Dell to toy with. Of course, any company with the capital could develop a 700MHz device, and there are talks of ultra-cheap nationwide broadband for rural or low-income residents finally democratizing Internet access and eliminating dial-up.

There were, however, a handful of special interests bemoaning the opening of the 700MHz spectrum: Dolly Parton, for one, championed the opposition on behalf of performers, along with mega-churches and sports leagues. They said that the usage of the 700MHz band could interfere with short-range microphone technologies that are crucial for staging big events. The FCC has decided in favor of opening white space despite such complaints, after reviewing several prototype 700MHz devices and apparently finding them workable additions to white space usage.

The use of the new spectrum space could significantly alter the communications landscape, as companies like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon proceed with plans to build out their 4G wireless infrastructure on more expensive, licensed parts of the spectrum. Upstart competitors touting similar speeds and much cheaper service could make many of their investments moot.

For now, however, the three companies are content to churn out 3G devices that make increasingly better use of short-range WiFi. AT&T is shipping the new Blackberry Bold by RIM starting Tuesday for $300 with a 2-year contract, and T-Mobile is now shipping several devices like the Blackberry Pearl Flip that can make VOIP calls over WiFi, saving your precious minutes for out-in-the-wild calls. AT&T has big WiFi news this week too, finally making Starbucks WiFi spots free for Apple iPhone and Blackberry users after several false starts this summer.

But while the service providers and their closest buddies might be anxiously awaiting industry changes, wireless handset makers continue their rout. Nokia announced today that the company is reorganizing as it “continues to change and renews some of its activities.” In straight-talk, that means cutting 600 jobs in Sales, Marketing and R&D. Of course, that loss is a mere blip compared to the house-cleaning going on at Motorola , which announced on November 2nd that it will hack 3,000 employees from its payroll in pursuit of an $800 million expenditure cut planned for 2009. As those measures suggest, Motorola’s earnings call on that day produced dismal Q3 numbers.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.