WASHINGTON U.S. consumers clamoring for more video and email while they're on the go might see a whole new breed of faster wireless devices in a couple of years if regulators move as expected later this month to start opening up empty airwaves for mobile broadband.
Tech companies are lobbying to use the airwaves to build a new, super WiFi to serve not only users of mobile devices like Apple iPads and other tablets but also homes, schools, hospitals, businesses and municipalities.
Content providers such as Google would benefit from the increased speeds to their sites, while device makers such as Dell Inc, Nokia and Motorola Inc could profit by building new products to tap into the airwaves.
Microsoft Corp and its competitors are prepared to develop software for a super WiFi.
Broadcasters, however, have complained there could be interference with channels currently in use.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to adopt a proposal at a meeting on Sept. 23 to make the unused airwaves freely available to the entire public.
Considered prime real estate, these empty airwaves, called "white spaces," allow signals to travel faster, penetrate walls more easily and cover larger geographical areas than current spectrum used for WiFi.
They come from spaces between existing broadcast channels that were freed up during the digital transition completed in 2009.
The airwaves are ideal for some rural communities where it would be costly to install miles of wires and cables underground or atop telephone poles.
"There is every reason to believe that this release of unlicensed spectrum can generate new multibillion-dollar industries in the United States," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
In 2008 the FCC took the first step of approving the use of white spaces for wireless broadband.
It is not yet known how the FCC's final rule will address broadcasters' concerns or how the industry's standard-setting body should proceed with technical details.
The National Association of Broadcasters said it is working with the FCC to adopt a final rule that would prevent interference.
Freeing up some spectrum would be a small victory for Genachowski, who has been criticized by some for not acting more decisively on major issues such as how to regulate high-speed Internet traffic.
Freeing up airwaves for wireless broadband is also a major goal of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which is aimed at making affordable broadband available to all Americans.
Spectrum, a limited and highly coveted resource, is at the center of a push by wireless companies seeking to meet a huge demand in handheld devices over the next decade.
"This will help address that demand," Genachowski said.
Consumers may have to wait at a year and a half to two years to start seeing the benefits as network operators, chip vendors and device manufacturers all work together to create industry standards similar to the ones used for current WiFi.
"The white spaces have the potential to spark the next generation of wireless communications," said Google telecom and media counsel Rick Whitt.
Google is among a group of tech companies touting the benefits of the empty channels, telling regulators in a July letter that new products will lead to new investment and create jobs -- music to the ears of any regulator and politician.
The industry group which also includes Hewlett-Packard Co, Skype, Atheros Communications Inc and Broadcom Corp, says homes, campuses, municipalities and energy grids will benefit from white spaces.
The benefits could vary from city to city. Top markets such as New York and Los Angeles may have fewer vacant channels than smaller metropolitan areas but officials expect 5 to 10 channels to be vacant in most U.S. cities.
Companies are working on how to outfit devices with technology to determine which unused channels are available and address broadcasters' concerns about potential interference.
Towns and cities in Virginia, North Carolina and California have been testing sites and are using white space broadband to connect schools, provide public "hot spots," test water quality and monitor electricity consumption.
"Transmissions using white spaces frequencies can attain a greater range for the same power -- or the same range with lower power consumption -- than existing higher frequency unlicensed bands," the industry group wrote.
(Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Gary Hill)