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What do "white spaces" mean for public media?

Over the past week, media and consumer advocates have been trumpeting an FCC decision to make so-called "white spaces"—buffer zones in the communications spectrum between broadcast TV channels—available for providing wireless broadband access.

The newly available spectrum is being called "WiFi on steroids." It would allow for higher transmission speeds, and because the signal is stronger, could reach rural and mountainous regions that are poorly served by current broadband technologies. What's more, the spectrum will be unlicensed—which means that many more broadband providers could enter the market, lowering consumer costs, offering us the promise of wireless access via a range of devices without the need to sign a contract, and boosting chances for the creation of municipal and nonprofit broadband providers. FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps expands on this idea in his statement on the ruling:

[W]e have learned in the past decade that unlicensed bands—once derided as "junk spectrum" suitable only for garage door openers—can actually support Wi-Fi connectivity for tens and even hundreds of millions of users every day. Something that seemed of marginal value has given us broadband in homes, airports, hotels, coffee shops, and downtown areas—developments that are changing the ways in which we live. Just stop by a Starbucks and look at how many people are typing away on laptops. That, to me, is the most important lesson of the wireless revolution: as technology marches on, the real winners are American consumers. This process is as it should be—the airwaves, after all, are the people’s airwaves. And it is the FCC’s job to make sure that the American people continue to extract full value from their property.

It will be awhile before we can extract that value—and lots of others will be extracting value along the way. White-space capable transmitters and mobile devices still need to be brought to market. "Last mile" connections need to be laid in order to connect potential providers to the Internet. Google, Intel and Motorola are all lining up to provide new equipment and services for this emerging market.

But if things proceed as consumer advocates like Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation hope, many more Americans will have broadband access. "In essence, the FCC has begun the transition from command-and-control, single-user spectrum licensure to a more distributed system that holds the potential to eliminate the artificial scarcity that prevented widespread access to the public airwaves since 1927," writes Meinrath on his blog. And they won't just be consuming media—on open networks, they'll be producing it too. That means many more chances to create and distribute the sort of dynamic public media we've been examining here at CSM. In other words—not just WiFi on steroids, but cable access too.