Thursday, November 06, 2008

The FCC's Whitespace Decision: A Triumph of Science Over Politics?

While most people were following the presidential election on Tuesday, another potentially momentous event was occurring. The FCC decided in an unanimous 5-0 ruling to "free the airwaves". What they meant is that the "white spaces" spectrum - the unused airwaves between broadcast TV channels - will be opened up for wireless broadband service for the public. Google's founder, Larry page, has called this, "a triumph of science over politics".

Why is this decision so important? Because it could potentially change the internet itself.

Without getting overly technical, the important thing to understand is that whitespace frequencies are unlicensed, which means any company can use the spectrum. As Larry Page has explained, it's like "WiFi on steroids". As a direct result of this ruling, expect to see faster wireless internet connections and a whole slew of new innovative devices as well as software applications to make use of them.

The big winners in this decision are hardware manufacturers like Motorola and Intel who should see entirely new markets opening up. Software companies like Google and Microsoft also win since their software will likely run that new hardware, and their internet services (think Google Maps) will be that much more useful. On the other hand, the big losers of this decision are unquestionably the big telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T. They've spent billions of dollars buying the exclusive rights to the licensed part of the spectrum, and now suddenly have to compete with new entrants to the marketplace who don't have to pay to use the spectrum at all.

Many ordinary consumers will probably find all of this to be rather dull and inconsequential geek-speak. But ultimately, they're the biggest winners of all. What the FCC's decision really does is try to change the internet's basic architecture - wresting control over the wireless infrastructure out of the hands of an elite few telecom corporations and into the hands of a greater number, and potentially more decentralized group, of players.

The wireless internet playing field has just been leveled, and now we can sit back and watch a whole lot of companies battle it out as they develop new innovative products and services all designed to give us a more fulfilling internet experience.

In the ongoing saga of how the internet is evolving, that was a major crossroads we just passed. The consequences will last for decades.


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