WASHINGTON The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved a plan sought by tech companies like Google Inc and Microsoft Inc to open soon-to-be-vacant television airwaves to new wireless devices.
The five-member FCC voted to open unlicensed pockets of the spectrum known as white space that will become available when U.S. broadcasters are required to move to digital television next year.
Companies like Google and Microsoft, as well as consumer groups, said access to the white space airwaves would encourage innovation in cellular telephones and wireless devices, much as WiFi did.
"Let's hope it's not just Wi-Fi on steroids but Wi-Fi on amphetamines," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.
FCC commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate dissented in part, saying she preferred a more formal process to deal with interference issues.
Traditional broadcasters such as Walt Disney Inc's ABC, General Electric's NBC, CBS Corp and even country singer Dolly Parton opposed the plan. They said signals sent over that part of the spectrum could cause interference with broadcasts or wireless microphones at live productions.
A broadcasters' group, Maximum Service Television, said the decision "imperils American's television reception in order to satisfy the "free" spectrum demands of Google and Microsoft."
The FCC sided with the tech companies and consumer groups after two rounds of testing the devices. An agency engineering report released several weeks ago said the spectrum could be used without causing harmful interference.
Harold Feld, senior vice president at the consumer group Media Access Project, said the vote will lead to expanded investment in broadband and other technologies.
"Motorola, Google and Microsoft have invested five years and millions of dollars to get this approved," Feld said. "The people that made those decisions are going to show they made good decisions."
The bi-partisan vote by three Republican and two Democratic FCC voting members signals that greater access to white space will move forward regardless of whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama wins the presidency, said Ben Scott, policy director of the advocacy group Free Press.
Republicans back white space access as a free-market approach, while Democrats like that it improves affordability and is pro-consumer, Scott said. "No matter who is president, this white space policy will be expanded upon," he said.
The decision "will allow the marketplace to produce new devices and new applications that we can't even imagine today," Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said.
The order requires both fixed and portable devices to be capable of sensing television stations and wireless microphones and that those devices be registered in an FCC database.
(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)