In a little-noticed meeting on May 9, 1985, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule that changed the tech world forever. Until that point, the FCC's main role had been to define specific uses for the public radio waves. If you picture all of the country's available radio spectrum as a pie, the FCC was the waiter who sliced it up and handed it out to the nation's most well-connected institutions: the radio and TV networks, telecom companies, and the military. The 1985 rule changed that. At the prodding of Michael Marcus, an engineer who joined the FCC under the Carter administration and stayed on during the Reagan era, the agency set aside a few distinct radio bands for "unlicensed" use. The rule allowed tech companies and customers to run devices on these bands for free, for any purpose, and without seeking government permission. In other words, the FCC was reserving a slice of the pie for the rest of us.
It wasn't a very pretty slice. The frequencies that the FCC gave away—the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands—were known as "garbage bands," because they were generally considered too prone to interference to be of much use (microwave ovens, for instance, emit radiation on the 2.4 GHz band). But as a result of a clever broadcasting technique known as "spread spectrum"—in which a device can communicate along a range of radio frequencies, making it less susceptible to interference—tech companies managed to make good use of the garbage bands. Thanks to the 1985 rule, the public has enjoyed a bonanza of wireless technologies—today, nearly every wireless device you use, from your cordless home phone to your Wi-Fi router to your Bluetooth headset, operates on the unlicensed band. None of these technologies would have been possible under any other regulatory regime.
Still, there is a downside to the unlicensed radio spectrum. Because the frequencies reserved for public use were never envisioned for widespread communication, they're prone to failure—they don't easily penetrate through walls or cover vast distances. That's why your Wi-Fi router doesn't reach your basement, and why your Internet connection conks out every time you microwave a burrito.
In a long-anticipated ruling last week, the FCC adopted a regulation (PDF) that could dramatically improve our wireless devices. The rule offered a brand new and much-improved slice of the radio space for unlicensed use. The new frequencies are known as "white spaces"—the waves that were freed up when TV channels switched from analog to digital transmission last year—and unlike the garbage band, they're considered prime real estate. Radio waves on white-space frequencies can travel for miles, they're much better at penetrating walls and buildings, and they're capable of carrying lots of data.
Tech observers say the new rules will lead to a new class of wireless devices known as "Super Wi-Fi." These new routers will be able to broadcast over very large areas—you could use a single device to bring Internet connections to an entire university campus, apartment building, or hospital. Anyone who's ever fiddled with a balky router will welcome these new devices. But Super Wi-Fi isn't the most interesting thing about this rule. The best part about the new spectrum is … well, we don't know what the best part will be. When the FCC first opened up unlicensed spectrum in 1985, few people expected amazing things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. "It took about three years after that ruling before people started developing Wi-Fi," says Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman. The same thing is likely to happen on the new spectrum—the most interesting uses of the new airwaves will be some new technology that we can't anticipate. "Super Wi-Fi will be the first application of this spectrum, but I don't think it will be the last," Genachowski says. "This is a new, significant platform for innovators to innovate without permission—and, God bless 'em, who knows what they'll come up with."
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