This morning, the Federal Communications Commission made a much-anticipated announcement that it was opening up "white spaces" for unlicensed use. "White spaces" are those open portions of the radio spectrum that were freed up last year when the U.S. made the big switch from analog to digital television. Sure, that ancient Sony set in the basement may have stopped being useful, but our common sacrifice made possible the new flowering of wireless innovation today.
Innovation like ... what exactly? The really fun part is that nobody knows for sure. We do know, for one thing, that this high-quality TV spectrum is made of sturdy stuff, and it's capable of supporting wireless networking that is faster, longer, and more reliable that current technologies. Connecting rural America to high-speed Internet -- including woefully under-connected tribal lands -- suddenly looks more possible. But beyond that, the attitude is, we'll see.
There's precedent here. Back in the mid 1980s, the FCC looked at the so-called junk spectrum that no one seemed to want and decided that they might as well open it up for anyone to use. People tinkered. Devices were built. And modern "Wi-Fi" was born.
Uncertainty about outcomes usually doesn't make for successful public policy. But as the Wi-Fi example shows, it can be the basis for a great deal of innovation. There were opponents to the freeing of the white space here. The National Association of Broadcasters lodged early objections over the possible interference with existing broadcasts. The wireless microphone lobby (including Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, and Guns N' Roses) worried about the same. But this FCC, led by Julius Genachowski, operated on both science and principle. The science said that modern technologies made it possible for people to smartly use this freed spectrum without interference. The principle? That the U.S. radio spectrum belongs to the American people. And that the American people should have a chance to see what amazing things they can do with it. The fun part now is to see what amazing things we do with it.
-- Nancy Scola
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