White-spaces debate gets Google backing

Concerns remain over interference; FCC to draft rules in September

The battle over "white spaces" has begun.

Google Inc. launched a public-interest campaign today called Free the Airwaves to spur lobbying by the public for unlicensed spectrum in so-called white spaces to provide faster, cheaper wireless Internet connectivity nationwide.

Google and groups representing underserved regions such as rural native tribal areas in Southern California and the rural areas of western North Carolina support the effort. Technology companies such as search powerhouse Google are interested in white spaces because they could expand the use of the Internet, help increase Web businesses' online ad revenues and give the development of mobile and wireless devices a boost. Other technology companies that favor unlicensed white spaces include Dell Inc., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., but they weren't part of today's announcement.

The lobbying effort will be directed at the Federal Communications Commission, which is expected to draft rules in September regarding uses for part of the 700-MHz spectrum known as white space, or unused spectrum between existing TV channels. The amount of unused spectrum in the 700-MHz band will increase greatly next February when TV stations fully convert to digital signals from analog.

The FCC is considering whether prototype white-space devices being developed by various equipment makers could be used in the proposed unlicensed spectrum without posing interference to TV broadcasters and wireless microphone users.

The proposed unlicensed spectrum would be like "Wi-Fi on steroids," providing a "leap ahead" compared with the current speed of Wi-Fi because of the propagation properties of the 700-MHz band, which far exceed the properties of the Wi-Fi channel in the 2.4-GHz band, said Minnie Ingersoll, product manager for alternative access at Google, during a conference call.

The amount of available spectrum varies from city to city but is in the "hundreds of megahertz, a huge amount," Ingersoll said.

Recent field testing of prototype white-space devices by the FCC at FedEx Field in Washington and in New York City "went well," even though one device from Philips Electronics North America Corp. didn't function properly, said Richard Whitt, director of policy and new media at Google.

The Philips device detected wireless microphone activity running along TV channels, which shut down the device unnecessarily. The sensor worked, even though it didn't need to shut down the entire device, Whitt said.

Whitt said Google is confident about the coming white-space technology, because in the example of the field test, "there was zero chance of interference to [TV or wireless microphone] signals."

Various media reports, including one from The Wall Street Journal, have quoted broadcasters and wireless microphone makers as being concerned about rules that allow unlicensed uses of the spectrum because of possible interference with TV broadcasts and communications at sporting and theater events over wireless microphones.

Whitt and Ingersoll said the FCC doesn't need to have fully working devices to create rules about unlicensed spectrum. Once the rules are written, however, the equipment makers will be bound to create technology that meets the FCC's requirements.

The equipment makers are "chomping at the bit to build devices as soon as the rules get written," Whitt said. He said it is possible that the FCC could decide to pass unlicensed-spectrum rules that don't require spectrum-sensing technology at all.

On the conference call, Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for Tribal Digital Village in San Diego, and Wally Bowen, executive director of Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, N.C., urged consumers to support the lobbying effort to help create more unlicensed spectrum in hopes of creating more competition and lower prices for Internet access.

Bowen said rural areas are often ignored by traditional broadband providers. "Unlicensed spectrum access is the only way for us to stay in the game," Bowen said, referring to the needs of western counties in North Carolina, where some residents must access the Internet via long-distance phone lines.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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