The ruling sets ground rules manufacturers will need to meet in order to have their gear approved for sale to consumers and businesses. Just as with WiFi, the new rules define what happens to spectrum in terms of equipment, rather than as property.
A last-minute monkey wrench seemed to be tossed into the plan just before its approval, when two Congresswomen asked that "smart grid" gear also be allowed into the white spaces.
But it's unclear whether that use would conflict at all with the white spaces plan, given the low data throughput of smart grid devices. It would mainly serve to let smart grid radios serve more isolated locations.
You can see the importance of these new rules in terms of open source.
As with WiFi itself, the FCC rules act as a platform on which companies innovate devices, and through which they can share in creation of new standards, just as the original 802.11 approval of 1997, which ran at 1 Mbps, now supports speeds of 100 Mbps under 802.11n.
When spectrum is sold, by contrast, only one company and its suppliers can innovate use of the spectrum. Manufacturers who want to improve service have to go through the spectrum owner, as a gatekeeper, and must deliver the same stuff across the network before service improves. A large investment is also required of the spectrum owner to improve service.
Thus the battle over white spaces, wifi, and licensed spectrum echoes what is happening in software, where open source allows companies to share the cost of innovation and develop value to customers faster, at lower cost, than any one company can do this alone.
The shared innovation of air travel or the proprietary standards of company-owned railroads -- your choice. Which offers more progress?