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IRIS 2010-10:1/40

United States

Federal Communications Commission Paves the Way for Super Wi-Fi

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Alexander Malyshev

Stern & Kilcullen

On 23 September 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) finalised its provisions for unlicensed wireless devices to operate in the unused part of the broadcast spectrum. Known as “white spaces,” these bands of spectrum are the gaps between the now defunct analog television channels that were vacated as part of the nationwide switch to digital television spectrum in June of 2009. This is a major step towards a technology dubbed “Super Wi-Fi” by the Chairman, Julius Genachowski.

By reclassifying this spectrum for unlicensed use, the Commission is allowing companies to develop products that can use this spectrum for a wide variety of functions, as long as those uses do not interfere with licensed frequencies. When the Commission allocated unused bands for general use in 1985, the result was a wide variety of wireless technologies, including remote garage door openers, cordless telephones and “Wi-Fi.” In an interview before the vote, Chairman Genachowski stated that the FCC “believe[s] that history can repeat itself, and unlicensed spectrum will catalyse private investment - it will create a new platform for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop new and exciting products for the public.”

According to Chairman Genachowski, this new spectrum will allow signals to travel further, go through walls, and transfer more information than the current generation Wi-Fi systems. While some technical issues remain to be worked out, companies like Microsoft and Google - part of the “White Spaces Coalition,” which advocates use of the unlicensed spectrum - are already devoting research teams to, and testing, this next generation of wireless networks.

In fact Microsoft’s experimental “White-Fi” network covers most of its 202 hectacre campus with just two transmitters. According to Microsoft, signals over white-space airwaves travel at least three times the distance of Wi-Fi, covering an area nine times as large with superior penetration of buildings. The FCC hopes that this action will create new opportunities for business and municipalities, which, due to the greater range of the frequencies - and therefore the lower cost of transmitters - can provide a faster, better and perhaps cheaper service than the current generation of wireless technology to the consumers.

Chairman Genachowski also stated that the United States will be the first nation to deploy the technology, although nations such as the U.K., France and Brazil are currently examining it.

Second Memorandum Opinion and Order - in the Matter of Unlicensed Operation in the TV Broadcast Bands - Additional Spectrum for Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz Band, adopted on 23 September 2010 EN