Last week, we sent out a call to action over the “white spaces” issue soon to be addressed by the FCC. Let’s take a closer look at why this issue matters.

It ought to be a no-brainer to say that the airwaves belong to everyone. We use the airwaves to carry TV and radio signals, for our cellphones and cordless phones, even for garage door openers and baby monitors. And while corporations are given license to use limited slices of the spectrum for radio and TV, the airwaves remain public property, a treasure we hold in common.

The FCC’s job is to regulate this valuable resource in the public interest. Later this fall, the FCC is expected to decide what should be done with “white spaces,” the unused areas of the spectrum that lie between channels licensed by TV and radio broadcasters. These white spaces amount to vast, unused real estate in the spectrum, a territory that will only increase in February 2009 with the discontinuation of analog TV signals.

Should these spare airwaves be auctioned to the highest bidder, or should they be preserved as open space that can be used by anyone? EFF is joining other groups, including Public Knowledge and Google’s Free the Airwaves campaign, in calling on the FCC to allow this unused spectrum to be left open and unlicensed. Our hope is that this will allow more people than ever before to use these resources, which were once the exclusive monopoly of private industry.

This would mean the airwaves could be used to deliver high-speed broadband wireless Internet access — an Internet with the same reach as broadcast radio and television. The public would be able to get online from almost any public or private space, untethered to wired connections or Wi-Fi hotspots. Accessing the Internet would be as easy as picking up a radio frequency. Low-income neighborhoods and rural areas where fiber-optic wires prove too expensive to lay down could enjoy the same fast connection speeds as dense urban neighborhoods.

The promise of wireless broadband would also allow an increase in the number of ISPs offering Internet access, delivering a challenge to the near monopolies held by cable and broadband providers in most areas. Increased competition among ISPs should drive down prices and potentially increase pressure on ISPs to maintain net neutrality and other desirable network policies (i.e. no 250GB caps).

Developers would also be free to use this spectrum to experiment with new devices that take advantage of the newly available spectrum. When the Internet is everywhere, cheap and easy to access, new devices will spring up to make use of it, promising a revolution in wireless technology that will likely bring changes we can only now imagine.

It wouldn't be an absolute free-for-all: companies using the space would have to use systems that would prevent them interfering with other spectrum users, just as airplanes have to obey air traffic control to fly in our skies.

But TV and radio broadcasters and other industries are defending their traditionally exclusive grip on the radio frequencies. They say external use of white spaces might interfere with their analog TV signals or with wireless mics used in concerts and sport events — even before the FCC is done testing prototype devices designed to avoid interference. Moreover, fears about interference begin to sound a bit stale in the face of new technology that allows white space devices to co-operate in sharing their common bandwidth while keeping them out of the way of the sprawling analog TV signals.

EFF encourages the public to make its voice heard in this vital debate about the future of the radio spectrum and the Internet. Public resources should be used in the public interest, and what better way to do that than to bring the communications medium of our time to a wider audience than ever, at greater speed, and lower cost?

Take action now. Tell the FCC to open up the airwaves!

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