By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley
Google launched a "Free the Airwaves" campaign to open up white spaces
Federal regulators have approved a plan to use currently unlicensed parts of the US TV airwaves, known as white spaces, to deliver broadband services.
For more than two years this proposal has pitted new media against old.
Companies, including Google, HP and Microsoft, say opening up the spectrum would improve internet access for Americans, especially in rural areas.
But opponents, from TV networks to Broadway producers, say it could disrupt their over-the-air signals.
The unanimous 5-0 vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is being seen as a major victory for the big technology companies that lobbied long and hard to open up the white spaces, which are the empty airwaves between television channels.
They have said the plan would encourage innovation and investment in much the same way the spread of Wi-Fi technology has and this would lead to the creation of internet-connected wireless gadgets.
"This is a clear victory for internet users and anyone who wants good wireless communications," wrote Google co-founder Larry Page in a company blog following the FCC's decision.
"This will put better and faster internet connections in the hands of the public.
"We will soon have Wi-Fi on steroids since these spectrum signals have a much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology."
It was a view backed by the national nonpartisan media reform group Free Press, which noted that nearly half of all American homes were still not connected to broadband.
"On this election day, the FCC chose to put politics aside and voted in favour of a policy grounded in sound science," said policy director Ben Scott.
"The bipartisan decision to open white spaces puts consumers first, marking a change in internet policy we can all believe in.
"It's time to start a new era of innovation that will help close the digital divide and provide internet for everyone," added Mr Scott.
Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, said the ruling "ushers in a new era of wireless broadband innovation".
Companies like Google and Microsoft stand to benefit because this unused spectrum would allow much wider access to the internet services that they offer.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin has said the approval of the rules authorising the use of white spaces includes provisions meant to protect TV broadcasts and microphones.
Microsoft says white-space devices could be ready within 18 months
He added that any device offered by a technology company would have to go "through a rigorous certification process".
Mr Martin said the FCC's engineers had already taken the "extra step" of undertaking months of testing of white-space devices, to determine whether they could be used without interfering with other broadcasts and microphones.
The prototype devices used were submitted by Microsoft, Phillips Electronics, Motorola and Adaptrum Inc.
But the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents more than 8,000 local and national TV stations, has said the tests have not been rigorous enough and ignore some obvious flaws in white-space devices.
And Maximum Services Television, a broadcasters' group, said the decision "imperils American's television reception in order to satisfy the 'free' spectrum demands of Google and Microsoft".
In the past week more than 50 members of Congress, including Senator Hillary Clinton, joined others such as Guns N' Roses, Dolly Parton, the Recording Academy and the American Federation of Musicians, to ask the FCC not to open up white spaces.