The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to open up the unlicensed airwaves known as white spaces, paving the way for a "platform for innovation."

The agency's five commissioners voted unanimously for the opening of what it hopes will be a new market for high-speed Internet connections for smart phones, tablets, and computers - and could take the pressure off already overburdened mobile networks that drop calls and slow Web connections.

"This new unlicensed spectrum will be a powerful platform for innovation," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said during the meeting. "And as we've seen time and again, when we unleash American ingenuity, great things happen."

High-tech heavyweights including Google, Microsoft and Motorola long have lobbied for the opening of these airwaves, which are set aside between television channels to prevent interference - but the newly opened airwaves will be available for anyone to use. The white spaces could house souped-up Wi-Fi networks - dubbed "WiFi on steroids" or "Super Wi-Fi" -- with longer ranges and stronger connections that can pass easily through walls.

According to Daily Finance, Microsoft already has set up two towers using the white spaces that it says cover its entire Redmond, Washington, campus - 500 acres that would otherwise need thousands of Wi-Fi routers.

"Opening this beachfront spectrum for unlicensed use by any individual, entrepreneur or Internet service provider will unleash innovation and promote pervasive connectivity, particularly in underserved communities," said Michael Calabrese, a senior research fellow at the Open Technology Initiative and an original proponent of reallocating TV white space.

"Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they may have only dreamed about before," said FCC commissioner Kevin Martin. "I fully expect that everything from enhanced home broadband networks, to intelligent peer-to-peer devices, and even small communications networks will come into being in TV 'white spaces.'"

Unlicensed broadcast spectrum already has been available for use by consumer electronic devices such as remote controls. But the grand opening of the white spaces has been a long time coming - the order was introduced and passed in November 2008, but got hung up with a lawsuit brought by broadcasters, church ministers and the wireless microphone lobby (which includes Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, and Guns 'n Roses).  They argued that those airwaves could interfere with wireless microphones and nearby television channels. (The FCC is aiming to prevent interference by keeping buffers near broadcast channels and requiring white-space users to register their plans for using the unlicensed airwaves.)

"While we appreciate the FCC's attempt to address significant issues raised by broadcasters and others, every American who values interference-free TV should be concerned by today's Commission vote," said Dennis Wharton, the National Association of Broadcasters' executive vice president. "By moving the 'white space' vote forward, the Commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television."

Genachowski noted that the last time the FCC granted the use of unlicensed spectrum some 25  years ago, those microwave frequencies - then referred to as "junk band," for its perceived uselessness - sparked the invention of wireless devices such as baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and even Wi-Fi itself. 

"We know from experience that unlicensed spectrum can trigger unexpected but hugely beneficial innovation," Genachowski said.

Microsoft commissioned a report last year that estimates white spaces would generate $4 billion in annual revenue for device makers and Internet service providers.