The Great White Space Debate

The battle over white space is over. At least for now. And the forces of the future have prevailed.

Before I explain what I mean by this, let me backpedal a bit. If you own an iPhone, and you use it to connect to public Wi-Fi spots, it's been a great couple of weeks. Last week, AT&T announced that iPhone users (finally, after several false starts) now have free Wi-Fi access at all AT&T hotspots in the United States[*]. Yes, this means virtually all Starbucks and Barnes & Noble stores, plus a host of other locations. Adding icing to the cake, AT&T this week purchased Wayport, Inc., adding "an additional 20,000 hotspots in the U.S."

If you can't find free Wi-Fi access for your iPhone after this, you're not really trying.

But back to the white space controversy. It too relates to those of us who connect via wireless networks. But it potentially affects all such users, not just iPhone owners. As reported in the New York Times this week: "The Federal Communications Commission voted 5 to 0 to approve a new use for the unlicensed frequencies, known as white spaces." These white spaces are the frequencies between digital television channels (the same channels that will completely replace over-the-air analog channels in February). Rather than let this white space sit idle and go to waste, a decision was made to allow its use it for wireless communications between electronic devices. If it all works out as hoped, this white space will enable much faster wireless transfer of data than with current Wi-Fi networks. Imagine even big video files, such as full-length movies, transferring in a fraction of the time they now require. Yup. That's why tech companies from Google to Microsoft fully support the decision and are nearly drooling at the prospects.

Sounds wonderful. Almost too good to be true. Who could possibly object to this technological advance? Perhaps a few Luddites who still see the Internet as a conspiracy to put an end to hand-written letters. But surely no one else.

Actually, as it turns out, a surprising collection of people do object. These naysayers work in the live performance business (as described more in this article) -- from Broadway producers to concert performers. Perhaps because she represents New York, the home of Broadway, Senator Hillary Clinton sides with these opponents. As unlikely as it may sound, televangelist Rick Warren, together with the entire National Religious Broadcasters association, have also joined the chorus of objectors.

What exactly is the big objection? What could have united Rick Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Dolly Parton on this issue? Here it is: Devices, such as the wireless microphones used at most live performances, access the same or similar white space as will be assigned to these new wireless networks. The fear is that the next generation of wireless gadgets could interfere with the workings of these microphones.

That's it. I'm not kidding. I even received an email last week from a musicians association, urging me to give them my support in this monumental battle. At first I thought it was satire. It wasn't. From the decibel level of the objections, you would think that we are about to witness nothing less than the complete demise of live performances, a permanent darkening of the lights on the Great White Way.

The F.C.C. claims that they have investigated this complaint and found little reason for concern. While they found "some potential for disruption," they had confidence "that interference could be mitigated through tight regulation of new devices." While there is often good reason to be skeptical of F.C.C. decisions (especially during these Bush years), I don't believe this is the case here.

I am confident that any problems will be surmountable. Heck, we've managed to survive cell phones in movie theaters. I think we'll survive this too. I certainly don't see the objections as a reason to stop what otherwise appears to be a great boon in wireless communication for all consumers. However, I admit that I don't know with certainty how all of this will play out (apparently no one else does either). As Dennis Miller used to say: That's just my opinion; I could be wrong.

[*Tech note: To get online for free at AT&T locations, select the attwifi network and enter your mobile number when asked. You should next receive a text message that contains a link. Tap the link and you're in -- free for the next 24 hours.]