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FCC Boosts Unlicensed Use of TV Spectrum

The FCC has voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking freeing up more "white spaces" spectrum between TV channels for wireless broadband by allowing for taller towers and higher powers for mobile and fixed wireless so signals can reach farther and over more difficult terrain.

Computer companies--most notably Microsoft--have been using white spaces spectrum for rural high-speed broadband and IoT applications and had been pushing the FCC to open up more of that spectrum, including on channels immediately adjacent to TV channels.

Related: Pai Pushes TV White Spaces Rule

The FCC did not go that far in the order, though it did seek comment on whether those first adjacent channels could be used without undue interference.

In 2018, Pai told the Hill that the FCC would free up more TV band white spaces for rural broadband "if the facts warrant and the law allows it."

And while broadcasters have always been concerned about interference, they did come to some meeting of the minds with Microsoft--at the urging of the FCC--on four of the five main points, the fifth being the issue of higher power on adjacent channels.

FCC chair Ajit Pai said he hoped the item would spur a revolution in connectivity. He said that unlicensed use of white spaces can be a game changer in getting broadband to rough terrain, and with low barriers to entry since it is unlicensed spectrum.

He praised the National Association of Broadcasters for working with the FCC, and reiterated that broadcasters have priority over the spectrum and the FCC would not put their signals in jeopardy.

Commissioner Brendan Carr said it was important to expand white spaces opportunities because it will allow the FCC to make "even more progress towards closing the digital divide while empowering rural communities through high-speed connections. A big reason we are here today is because stakeholders got together, compromised, and identified a path forward," he said. Carr said the reason they were there voting on the item was that stakeholders got together and compromised.

"I support this item because it proposes actions that, if adopted, would increase our options for ensuring the availability of broadband data and other services in rural America," said commissioner Geoffrey Starks. He called it a valuable opportunity to increase broadband capacity and use spectrum more efficiently and effectively.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the U.S. has been slow on the white spaces uptake, so she was pleased with the FCC action as a way to help the country get its white spaces mojo back. "These technical changes can open up new possibilities for using these airwaves to power the Internet of Things and extend the reach of broadband networks," said. "This is progress." But she also said more needed to be done, including resolving outstanding petitions for reconsideration dealing with white spaces.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly called the item a "long-time labor of love." He said it was common sense to make spectrum available for non-interfering wireless services and that it was now possible to identify usable spectrum that would not interfere with full-power TVs. He said there were continuing issues, like use of ch. 37, and that the FCC should continue to explore that use.

"This [item] is critical to advancing American leadership in 5G and ensuring rural and suburban communities benefit from next-gen networks, which is why it enjoys widespread support from a diverse array of stakeholders, including national security experts,"said Pai policy advisor Evan Swarztrauber in an email before the vote.

In fact, the chairman's office put out a "What They’re Saying About Chairman Pai’s Proposal to Expand Broadband Connectivity in Rural America Through TV White Spaces" release earlier in the week providing a host of quotes in support of the white spaces item, including from Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy Distinguished Fellow and frequent Pai FCC critic Gigi Sohn, former counselor to FCC chair Tom Wheeler.