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Both houses of the US government have now approved bills to auction off $22bn worth of radio spectrum, but white spaces will remain licence-free – much to the delight of the industry.

White Space spectrum was threatened by those who feel licence money could be poured into the national debt, but opponents reckon more unlicensed spectrum will drive innovation, and point to the success of Wi-Fi as proof. But 120MHz of spectrum currently used by TV broadcasters will be sold off, raising $22bn which will mostly get spent on unemployment and tax cuts, though $7bn gets held back for a national network for first-responders.

The auctions will happen over the next six years, with most of the spectrum coming from television broadcasters who can opt in to give up some of the frequencies they were allocated. The FCC won't be allowed to stop existing operators buying up the spectrum but it can decide that some bands should remain licence-free, and share the money with the broadcasters who give it up.

That clause has been controversial, given the television broadcasters didn't pay for the spectrum in the first place. There's an argument that they should be forced to pay up or give up, but that assumes that society gains nothing from the existence of terrestrial broadcast television.

The bills, both of which were passed earlier this week, have managed to achieve remarkable cross-industry support, and while no one is singing in the streets they're not sharpening their lawyers either. The CTIA, representing the cellular industry, always likes to see more radio spectrum on the market, while the NAB (TV broadcasters) is pleased to see television maintaining its special status – and the nascent White Space industry is just pleased not to have been squeezed out entirely.

Even AT&T managed to get a statement out, saying that the compromise wasn't too bad, particularly the removal of any clause permitting the FCC to exclude existing operators. The FCC can still cap spectrum ownership, but subject to competition safeguards and judicial oversight, which is enough to mollify AT&T.

So what remains to be seen is if the 120MHz of spectrum released really is worth $22bn, which is important as it seems the money is already being spent. ®

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