"Super Wi-Fi is what it sounds like: Wi-Fi, but with longer range, faster speeds, and more reliable connections," the FCC chairman said in a statement about the vote.
White spaces -- or the radio airwaves no longer used by television broadcasters -- can transmit through walls, around corners and over large swaths of space. For that reason, the FCC says that the spectrum can support powerful wireless broadband networks, or "super WiFi hot spots -- with extended range, fewer dead spots, and improved individual speeds as a result of reduced congestion on existing networks."
When the FCC considered freeing white spaces in 2008, the possibility drew heated debate. Tech companies like Google and Microsoft urged the FCC to make the spectrum available, while incumbent users like the National Association of Broadcasters, Broadway theaters and performers -- including, famously, Dolly Parton -- criticized the move, saying that mobile broadband on the spectrum could interfere with existing uses.
In fact, some of the opponents were so concerned that they mounted a court challenge to the FCC's decision to allow the unlicensed use of the spectrum. Those actions are currently on hold, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Google and proponents of broadband-over-white-spaces cheered the FCC's vote. "Chairman Genachowski and his fellow Commissioners deserve ample credit for adopting rules that ultimately will put better and faster wireless broadband connections in the hands of the public," Richard Whitt, telecom and media counsel, said on the company's blog.
Already tests are under way in at least four locales, including Logan, Ohio, where Google is trying out a new white-spaces broadband network for the Hocking Valley Community Hospital. Other spots include Claudeville, Va. (where the spectrum is being used by an elementary school), Wilmington, N.C., and Plumas County, Calif., according to the FCC.
Of course, it could still be quite a while before new wireless broadband networks are built nationwide. But the FCC's vote this week at least paves the way for such networks -- which could go a long way toward increasing competition and providing consumers with more choices for high-speed Web access.