FCC Endorses Expanding Wireless Services

"It promises to dramatically increase the availability and quality of wireless Internet connections , the equivalent of doubling the number of lanes on a congested highway," said Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Commissioners voted unanimously to begin the lengthy rulemaking process.

Opposing the proposal are television broadcasters, who say it would disrupt service for over-the-air television signals for millions of people.

"Free, over-the-air television provides invaluable news, information and entertainment to local communities all over America and serves as a lifeline to citizens in times of crisis," said Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

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Ed Thomas, the FCC's chief engineer, said current technology can avoid interference problems. Services such as WiFi, which provide wireless Internet connections, can sense when a frequency is being used and scan for another available pocket of spectrum. That technology, Thomas said, can be expanded to the television spectrum to avoid interference.

Under the plan, wireless companies would be allowed access to the unused airwaves in local areas between channels 5 and 51, with a few exceptions.

The frequencies available involve spectrum below 700 megahertz, Thomas said. These lower frequency bands allow signals to travel farther, easily penetrating walls, trees and other obstructions through which higher frequencies cannot pass.

Wireless users would not have to obtain spectrum licenses, but could only operate in the unused bands in a way that causes no interference with licensed broadcast users, the FCC said.

Consumer and industry groups praised the agency's proposal.

"From poor inner-city neighborhoods to rural areas where cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) don't find it profitable to deploy, this empowers citizens to construct networks they need, available when they want them," said Harold Feld, associate director at the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that represents consumer groups on telecommunications issues.

Intel, hoping to take advantage of new spectrum for next-generation wireless devices, also applauded the move.

"For more than half a century, vacant TV channels, which represent some of the most valuable spectrum available, have been underutilized," said Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technical officer. "Releasing this spectrum for unlicensed use will help foster new technologies, create opportunities for business, and bring exciting new products to consumers."

The FCC will take comments from the public over the next 2 1/2 months. Final rules are expected in about six months to a year.