Last Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin spoke in favor of opening up "white spaces" at a press conference while the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) published its much-anticipated report on white space technology trials. The Commissioners also announced plans to vote on white spaces at their next meeting, November 4th, although predictably, white space opponents have requested a delay of the vote.

For those new to the issue, "white space" refers to the unused spectrum that exists between broadcast TV channels. The FCC has been weighing the merits of allowing newer, smarter wireless communication devices to operate in the the otherwise unused spectrum -- similar to the way that Wi-Fi devices exist today. A number of public interest organizations, including EFF, are in favor of opening the white spaces, largely because it represents the most immediate opportunity to grow innovative wireless broadband Internet services.

Since January, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) has been conducting tests on prototype white space devices in order to answer some critical questions, particularly, "Will white space devices be able to detect the channels being used by TV broadcasts?" Because white space devices are expected to use radio frequencies close to the radio frequencies used by antenna-based TV, the FCC made it imperative for the technology to follow a "detect and avoid" strategy to avoid interfering with TV reception. The core "detect and avoid" technique is spectrum sensing, in which the device scans for occupied frequencies before transmitting. But additionally, a geo-location and database access technique has been proposed, in which the device is aware of its location and consults a database of occupied channels in order to know what frequencies to avoid.

In the report's executive summary, the OET delivers its encouraging conclusion:

At this juncture, we believe that the burden of "proof of concept" has been met. We are satisfied that spectrum sensing in combination with geo-location and database access techniques can be used to authorize equipment today under appropriate technical standards and that issues regarding future development and approval of any additional devices,including devices relying on sensing alone, can be addressed.

Having successfully passed this "proof of concept" phase, the FCC needs to take the next steps to allow unlicensed operation, while carefully crafting the appropriate standards for white space devices. As we and others have emphasized before, enabling wireless broadband will spur the growth of the Internet in much-needed ways, not only fueling advances in the services being offered, but also giving service providers more ways to give Internet access to people that would otherwise be shut out.