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FCC to Vote on Opening Up "White Spaces" on TV Spectrum to Expand Broadband Access

StoryNovember 04, 2008
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Timothy Karr

Campaign Director for the media reform group Free Press. He writes for the blog Media Citizen, at MediaCitizen.Blogspot.Com

There’s another important vote today, but it’s not the US election. The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to decide on a measure that could expand wireless broadband internet access to more of the country. The FCC will vote on whether to allow the unlicensed use of so-called “white space” television spectrum for wireless internet services. We speak with Timothy Karr of the media reform group Free Press. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We wrap up now with another important issue that is not about the US election, but is related to this day, November 4th. The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to decide on a measure that could expand wireless broadband internet access to more of the country. The FCC will vote on whether to allow the unlicensed use of so-called “white space” television spectrum for wireless internet services. Proponents say white spaces could provide fast internet connection to tens of millions of Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The measure has drawn bipartisan support. But the National Association of Broadcasters has vocally opposed it and, with intense lobbying, is trying to muster up congressional opposition.

We’re joined now by Timothy Karr, campaign director of the media reform group Free Press. He maintains the blog Media Citizen at

Welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, it’s very interesting. No one is focused on this issue today. This is Election Day.

TIMOTHY KARR: Sure. And it is just an odd coincidence of circumstances that the FCC would be voting today, but they have spent the last four years considering this issue of whether, as we transition to digital television from the old rabbit-ear model, whether we should open up airwaves to actually give — bring the internet to people who are living in rural areas or low-income areas. And this is a massive opportunity, a very important vote today for our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, last night when I was doing the research, I saw that the vote was canceled. Actually, I think it was AP that had put that out.

TIMOTHY KARR: Yeah, there was — that was a mistake. There was a — they have decided to delay a vote on what’s called the Universal Service Fund reforms. Those are related to how we get television services out into rural communities. The white spaces issue is definitely going forward today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain it further, exactly what it means —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- for the technically challenged.

TIMOTHY KARR: Sure. Well, it’s actually quite easy for those of us who watch television. White spaces are the spaces between the television channels that carry television stations. So if you’re in a rural area, if you’re in an area like Juneau, Alaska, 74 percent of those airwaves that are dedicated to television transmission now sit vacant. And as we are moving to digital television, the sort of —-

AMY GOODMAN: February 2009?

TIMOTHY KARR: February 2009. The concerns that they have about interference are much less. Digital broadcasting doesn’t have any interference problems. So we can now open up these massive bands of airwaves to high-speed internet services, to mobile internet services. And the FCC is actually doing the right thing this time, in doing exhaustive research, looking at the potential of these airwaves and deciding, as they have earlier this summer, that we should indeed open these up for unlicensed access. And the important about this is that it will blow open the access market in the United States. You may know that the United States is now twenty-second in the world in terms of our internet penetration and services. We’re falling progressively behind other developed countries, and we need to find new technologies, new ways to get more people connected.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the origin of this bill that’s being considered today or this -— what do you call it? A resolution.

TIMOTHY KARR: It’s an order that the FCC — it has come through a very, very long process. The FCC, for instance, has been studying this issue for four years. They opened up what’s called a public docket. More than 29,000 people have commented on that. Their engineers have done exhaustive studies of these technologies.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is NAB against it, National Association of Broadcasters?

TIMOTHY KARR: They’re against — National Association of Broadcasters is another example of a sort of legacy media, and they really want to hoard information, they want to hoard access. And for the last fifty, sixty, seventy years, they have really controlled access to our television airwaves. And this is billions of dollars in money that the government has given away to broadcasters, television stations, for free. And so, they have been very aggressively opposing any sort of innovation that might threaten their control of the airwaves, that might threaten their control of information.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect the vote to be today? There’s three Republicans, two Democrats on the FCC.

TIMOTHY KARR: Well, we’re very optimistic. We think — we’re fairly confident that there will be a unanimous vote to determine to open white spaces for unlicensed use.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tim Karr of Free Press, thanks so much for joining.

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