The decision by the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday to open up white space -- the unused frequencies between television channels -- to unlicensed Wi-Fi devices is being hailed by technology companies as the dawning of a new era in broadband Internet access.
But the ruling is also being harshly criticized by various trade groups, including the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which argues that both the FCC's procedure and the concept are flawed.
"By moving the white-space vote forward," said Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president, "the commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television."
A statement by NAB suggests that the group may be considering asking Congress to either reverse or substantially alter the FCC's white-space decision. According to NAB, a large number of lawmakers "publicly expressed opposition or concern over the FCC's proposed white-space action."
Among the more notable names listed by NAB are House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
"There was and continues to be immense concern from a large bipartisan group of lawmakers," Wharton said, "who recognize the important role that free television broadcasting plays in the daily lives of all Americans. Whether it is for emergency information, AMBER Alerts or news and entertainment, free TV is a service used more than eight hours per day by more than 100 million American households."
However, it remains to be seen just how receptive the new Congress will be to NAB's concerns. A number of the lawmakers listed in NAB's statement will not be returning to Washington in January. Moreover, the incoming Barack Obama administration is likely to be far more tech-savvy and tech-friendly than the current administration.
The Train Is Leaving the Station
Another problem facing NAB and other white-space opponents is consumer opinion: Congress may resist making changes in a technological development that its constituents are likely to enthusiastically embrace.
The white-space initiative offers the prospect of truly long-range, fast, reliable Wi-Fi. A single access point using the white-space frequencies, for instance, can cover a circle with a radius of 50 miles. It will now be much more affordable to bring high-speed Internet access to regions of the country that have been on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Anticipating consumer demand, Dell has already announced it will include a white-space Wi-Fi option on future laptops. Other manufacturers, anticipating the FCC decision, are reportedly prepared to roll out their own white-space-enabled devices in the near future.
Still, Wharton promised that NAB will continue its efforts to fight the decision. "Going forward," he said, "we will pursue all options to ensure that Americans' increased access to high-speed Internet, while certainly a worthy goal, does not mean diminished access to interference-free television."