While most of us are caught up in a historic U.S. presidential election tomorrow, the Federal Communications Commission will be creating its own drama when it votes on the future of unfettered wireless Internet access.
Before the FCC is the controversial idea to open up the wireless spectrum in the 700 MHz range for wireless devices. Called white spaces, these airwaves have acted as a buffer between TV channels to prevent overlap and interference from other signals. With television stations abandoning the airwaves as they switch to federally-mandated digital service, white spaces have become a hot commodity because of their ability to pass easily through walls and travel long distances. This makes the spectrum ideal for Wi-Fi, but is extremely contentious, and pits major tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel and Dell against broadcasters, sports leagues, and even mega-churches.
Opponents of the plan say that use of white space will interfere with other devices, like wireless microphones, and also still interfere with clear television broadcasts despite the move to digital. On the other side, major tech companies, operating under the lobbying group The White Spaces Coalition say their devices can be designed to avoid interference with other signals in the 700MHz spectrum. Earlier this month the FCC issued a report on the reliability of these devices, and while results look promising for the tech companies, opponents were not convinced.
Everyone from Bill Gates to Dolly Parton has begun lobbying the FCC as the vote closes in. In a letter to congress, Parton said "the importance of clear, consistent wireless microphone technology cannot be overstated."
Gates has been meeting with FCC commissioners face to face as he tries to seal the deal. White spaces have the potential to revolutionize Internet access, and could make it much easier for America's millions of rural internet users who still rely on dial-up access to obtain wireless broadband service.
Whatever the outcome, tomorrow's decision by the FCC seems likely to impact the country's communication infrastructure for years to come.