The Federal Communications Commission has amended its rules governing unlicensed wireless services provided over spectrum in the television broadcasting bands – the so-called TV White Spaces (TVWS).
The amended rules will allow for expanded use of this spectrum for the delivery of broadband services in rural and underserved communities while protecting broadcast television stations and other licensed services from harmful interference.
The Report and Order adopted by the Commission amends the FCC’s Part 15 rules, which govern how unlicensed white space devices operate over spectrum not in use by licensed services or protected entities. Wireless Internet Service Providers currently use fixed white space devices to provide Internet connectivity to schools, libraries, and rural households. The FFC says its action will strengthen these efforts by allowing for more flexibility in how wireless services are provided within white spaces, better reflecting technological and geographic realities.
Specifically, the Commission is increasing the maximum permissible power and antenna height for fixed white space devices operating in ‘less congested’ areas (generally rural and unserved areas) in the TV bands. The amended rules also increase the minimum required separation distances between protected services and entities operating in the band and white space devices operating at the new higher power levels and higher heights above average terrain in order to ensure that broadcast television stations are protected from harmful interference. In addition, the Commission is permitting higher power mobile operations using white space devices in ‘less congested’ areas within defined geo-fenced areas, such as school bus routes or farm boundaries. The rule changes also provide flexibility for new and innovative narrowband white space devices so that users can more fully benefit from Internet of Things applications.
Finally, the Commission also adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to explore whether to modify its rules to permit the use of terrain-based models to determine available TV channels for white space devices.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his top priority in the role had been closing the digital divide, suggesting that the TV White Space spectrum – which includes unoccupied channels in the broadcast television bands – has several attributes that make it attractive for delivering wireless broadband service to rural areas. “The signals propagate well over long distances, varying terrain, and even into and within buildings,” he explained. “The Commission first authorised unlicensed white space operations in 2008 and has expanded white space opportunities on several occasions since then, each time taking care not to interfere with broadcast television station operations. For example, in 2019, we modified our antenna height rules to allow for improved broadband coverage in rural areas.
He said that the FCC was taking the “critical steps” necessary to ensure that these reforms don’t end up causing harmful interference to broadcast television stations, concluding that the FCC had been able to “thread the needle, protecting the ability of broadcast television stations to serve their communities and helping bring digital opportunity to more rural Americans and close the digital divide.
Connect Americans Now (CAN) – a coalition committed to eliminating completely and swiftly the digital divide in America by supporting a mixed-technology approach – welcomed what it described as an “important step” to clear regulatory barriers to innovation to help bridge the digital divide. “We commend the FCC for demonstrating a bipartisan commitment to maximising spectrum resources to expand broadband connectivity, a critical need for millions of Americans made more urgent by the pandemic,” declared CAN executive director Richard Cullen.
“CAN has been a long-time advocate for updated TVWS rules that will unleash the full potential of this technology as a critical tool to help eliminate the broadband gap,” affirmed Cullen. “We welcome the FCC’s unanimous vote to support broadband innovation today and look forward to continuing to work with the Commission, Congress and other policymakers to completely eliminate the digital divide in America.”