White spaces are a go! (at least in Wilmington)

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

Ignoring the threats by Congress to kill off white spaces, on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission green-lighted commercial operations of the first networks and devices to tap into the airwave gaps between TV broadcasts, potentially setting off a whole new wave of innovation in unlicensed wireless broadband access akin to that produced by Wi-Fi.

The FCC is starting out small with operations limited to Wilmington, N.C., beginning Jan. 26. The commission wants to ensure there are no interference problems between new white space networks and the wireless microphones that currently access the spectrum at big performance venues.

Mics and broadband devices will essentially be sharing the airwaves, so the FCC has set up a database, run by Spectrum Bridge, (see disclosure below), where concert venues or theaters can register their events. Any white spaces devices accessing those airwaves will periodically check in with that database, which would then assign those device channels not being used for performances.

The FCC also approved the first white spaces device, a radio receiver from Koos Technical Services designed to provide a last-mile link for outdoor surveillance cameras and telemetry systems. It may not be as sexy as a tablet, but commercial gadget makers won’t start building devices until white spaces are fully tested and become a viable frequency band nationwide.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski certainly didn’t downplay the significance of the launch in his statement today:

With today’s approval of the first TV white spaces database and device, we are taking an important step towards enabling a new wave of wireless innovation.  Unleashing white spaces spectrum has the potential to exceed even the many billions of dollars in economic benefit from Wi-Fi, the last significant release of unlicensed spectrum, and drive private investment and job creation.

White spaces could be used to create a form of Super Wi-Fi, greatly expanding the number of cheap or even free wireless access options on the market. White spaces advocates have said the airwaves not only could be used to build greatly expanded public hotspots, but also as the primary broadband connection for homes in rural communities and as the connective glue linking smart grids together.

The technology still faces some obstacles. Broadcasters’ channels are interleaved with white space channels, so TV stations worry new, unlicensed, wireless broadband services will interfere with their transmissions. Performers are concerned their wireless mics won’t be protected even with the database in place. But the biggest threat could be Congress, which is reluctant to agree to creating any more unlicensed frequencies.

The House passed a spectrum bill last week that would prevent the FCC from designating any future TV spectrum it gets from broadcasters for unlicensed use. Instead, they would have to turn those airwaves into mobile broadband licenses, which they would then auction off to the highest bidder. As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote last week, such a move from Congress, while predictable, could stifle innovation:

In the end this could cost consumers, in the form of higher mobile broadband bills, and stymie the mobile app ecosystem as bandwidth becomes more expensive and is controlled by carriers. In general Congress isn’t trying to utterly crush the tech industry, but it is hard for it to give up the potential billions that auctioning off that spectrum to the highest bidder would entail. As taxpayers, we too should ask ourselves if unlicensed spectrum and more players getting licensed airwaves is worth the loss of a few billion in potential revenue in the government coffers. Unfortunately, few people will think of the debate in these terms.

Disclosure: Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.