September 12, 2010 10:30 pm

US regulator set to back ‘WiFi on steroids’

The prospect of new wireless devices resembling “WiFi on steroids” will open up next week when US regulators will vote to liberalise an important part of the airwaves.

The new spectrum is set to end the frustration of users who lose connectivity when they move rooms. It will also bring affordable broadband access to tens of millions of rural users.

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“This has at least as much opportunity” for the industry and users as the $4bn WiFi industry, Julius Genachowski, Federal Communications Commission chair, told the Financial Times.

“The characteristics of this spectrum are even better.” Signals sent over the so-called white spaces frequencies can travel further than WiFi and penetrate walls.

The FCC vote on September 23 would set final rules for the spectrum, which has been reserved to protect broadcast television stations from interference. The UK and French governments have also been examining release of the frequencies.

The vote would mark a victory for technology companies over broadcasters, who have sought to require equipment in devices using white space frequencies to check whether they were interfering with TV signals.

Instead, people familiar with the FCC’s thinking said the devices would only have to communicate with an online database to determine which frequencies have been cleared for use.

There will be more spectrum available in the countryside, where there are fewer local broadcasters. Larry Page, Google co-founder, described the advance as “WiFi on steroids” and Google policy specialist Richard Whitt said the company would modify its Android smartphone software to take advantage of white spaces and could sell its own hardware.

“The area with the most promise is mobile broadband,” Mr Whitt said. “We’ve been talking to potential partners around business models.”

A Dell executive said it planned to introduce white space-enabled chips in its notebook computers, just as it does with WiFi. Microsoft said the enhanced connection range and speeds will help it deliver more e-mail, storage and services from remote servers.

Unlike frequencies reserved for broadcast TV and other services, the spectrum will be available free and therefore not limited to companies that can afford to pay billions of dollars at auction for exclusive rights.

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