FCC Approves New Unlicensed White Space, Canada Lags Behind In Digital Switchover

Amidst the excitement of the American election this week, the US Federal Communications Commission made a decision that is likely to lead to a new generation of wireless networking with far greater range and speed than we enjoy today. The 5-0 decision approved new uses for “white space” – portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are unlicensed. Contemporary WiFi networking also uses unlicensed white space. The area of the spectrum in question includes space that is currently used by television, but will become empty in February 2009 as per the US digital switchover mandate. This space could have been auctioned off, as the US and Canada have done recently, licensing new spectrum space for cellular providers.

This initiative has been spearhead by the White Spaces Coalition, a group of companies including Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung. They argue that the space could be used for long distance networking of 10Mb+, and 50-100Mb for short range (compare to current speeds of about 2Mb and 11-54Mb, respectively). Such new technology could be a major boost for rural broadband, and stimulate competition against ISPs and telecom providers.

Bringing devices to market that make use of this newly freed spectrum space will take some time, perhaps they’ll be ready in time for Canada’s digital-only switchover date, August 31, 2011, about two and a half years after the US. This week at the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Convention, the CRTC urged the federal government to assist the country’s transition, saying that “We’re way behind as a country. We need government involvement. We need to act fast, otherwise folks will go without their programming,” Oh no, folks won’t have their TV programming? Mass panic! Rioting in the streets! Seriously though, the digital transition is an expensive one for both broadcasters and viewers, and according to the CRTC, Canada is lagging behind. The US government recognizes the importantly of keeping the god-boxes running; they’ve offered rebates for those who have to purchase digital-conversion boxes. Will Canadian taxpayers get to pick up the tab to save their own TVs from obsolescence? Is this even a real issue in times of global economic uncertainty? Will we have to wait three years to use new faster networking devices that our American counterparts will be enjoying? Time will tell.