FCC’s Whitespace Ruling: The Real Wi-Fi Revolution Is About to Happen

We live in a Wi-Fi age surrounded by impressive wireless gizmos, thanks to relaxed rules about wireless transmission. Now the FCC is about to open up lots more “whitespace” radio bands. The real wireless revolution may be in-bound.



We live in a Wi-Fi age where even fringe technology like video baby monitors exists, thanks to relaxed rules about wireless transmission. Now the FCC is about to open up lot more whitespace, and the real wireless revolution is about to hit.

Whitespace used to just mean the gaps between words on a sheet of printed text, but it also refers to empty patches in the electromagnetic spectrum that are not currently open for use (due to governmental restrictions). But just as whitespace can be used in innovative ways by graphic designers, radio whitespace can be extremely powerful too: Since it’s unlicensed, there are fewer regulations about how it can be used, and open doors like this are always an invitation to novel exploits. Take baby monitors: My parents had to thread a wire through the house to listen out for kids crying in the night, but I have a cheap, powerful whitespace wireless solution that can let me see the baby on camera so I can work out if he actually needs help.

Earlier decisions about freeing up whitespace led to our current wireless revolution–every time you see someone tapping away at a laptop in Starbucks, you can thank RF whitespace (for good or for bad). But for years the FCC has been deliberating opening up more spectrum in the same way, and all the signs point to a ruling this month that’ll do exactly that. It’s not without controversy, as some local TV stations still use radio signals in or near the proposed bands, and critics say the FCC is throwing away the opportunity to earn valuable tax income, with a more regulated approach to whitespace use.

Nonetheless, the FCC’s chair Julian Genachowski is right behind the plan, and he’s certain that the outcome will be positive. The “first kind of deployments” will be, he thinks, expansion of the existing way Wi-Fi is used. A powerful whitespace system could transform, say, a university campus from a clutch of disparate Wi-fi hotspots into a campus-wide wireless signal field. But Genachowski’s bigger thinking may seem atypical to cynics used to line-toeing government officials: He notes “this will also be a platform for innovators and entrepreneurs. There is every chance of this leading to the development of one or more billion-dollar industries.”

What’s he talking about? Things like:

  • Wireless broadband cover for rural areas, whose farmsteads are far from local cable routes.
  • Super-powered smart electric grids.
  • Wireless-connected cars that can alert drivers to upcoming local road hazards or traffic jams.
  • Smart advertising hoardings that detect your smartphone walking by, and tailor ads for you.

But these are just the initial benefits, along with the more obvious ones of not having to find a wireless hotspot to use your laptop or tablet PC when you’re in an area of poor 3G phone signal. The real benefits will probably arrive in five years, when whitespace systems that haven’t even been dreamed of yet are possible. If you think wireless tech is amazing now, then it’s about to get a whole lot more so … which is probably terrible news for those odd individuals who swear they get ill from Wi-Fi.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)