Washington -- Over the strong objections of the TV station industry, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin wants to open vacant TV channels for broadband communications by anyone using a compliant low-power, hand-held device.
After years of fierce debate in which broadcasters squared off against the giants of Silicon Valley, Martin said Wednesday that unused spectrum adjacent to existing TV channels -- so-called white spaces -- can be utilized without interfering with over-the-air TV reception in millions of American homes.
Martin's support was based on the findings of an FCC engineering study released Wednesday night.
"The white spaces issue has been something the engineers have been studying for a long time. The report they're putting in the record is very thorough," Martin said at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. "The white spaces in between those channels can be utilized as long as they are not interfering with the local broadcast channels."
The cable industry expressed concern that wireless devices operating on vacant TV channels could harm cable reception in homes where set-top boxes were not snuggly attached to cable lines.
A National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman declined to comment, saying the trade group needed to study the FCC's engineering report.
Martin, who needs the votes of two FCC members to prevail, said he wants the FCC to adopt his plan at the agency's Nov. 4 meeting here.
FCC approval would represent a big policy triumph for the White Spaces Coalition, an advocacy group formed by Internet and computer industry powerhouses Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
Each TV market has many channels -- the exact number varies by market size -- that were deliberately left vacant to provide interference protection to incumbent stations.
The White Spaces Coalition argued that such valuable slices of the airwaves could be used by low-power devices on an unlicensed basis without interfering with TV reception.
The National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television repeatedly claimed that open access to the spectrum would have a devastating impact on broadcast TV because field testing showed that the wireless devices could not routinely stay off channels being used by TV stations.
"Allowing millions of unlicensed devices, which rely exclusively on sensing to avoid interference, on to TV channels will decimate digital television reception across the country," MSTV president David Donovan said in a statement Wednesday night.
NAB has indicated that white spaces spectrum should be auctioned, an approach Martin rejected. He declined to explain his decision when asked by a reporter.