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Google's Next Spectrum Battle

Google "lost" the recently concluded government auction of 700MHz spectrum, but it's continuing its push to open up the airways.

Many observers think Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) didn't care that much about winning any of the spectrum (the big winners were Verizon Wireless and AT&T) because it had already won its primary objective.

In agreeing to be one of the $4.6 billion bidders in the spectrum auction, Google successfully lobbied for rules that require the spectrum be open to a multitude of devices when it becomes available. That includes mobile devices due out later this year based on Google's Android phone spec.

The latest push by Google concerns making the "white space" or unused portion of broadcast spectrum, available for mobile broadband services. Google is one of eight technology companies in the White Spaces Coalition; the others are Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, HP, Philips, and Earthlink.

But last August the FCC tested and rejected prototype devices designed to exploit the white space (empty spectrum) between television channels. Microsoft later sent the FCC another device for evaluation, citing a faulty component in the first ones sent.

This week, in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Google's telecom and media counsel Richard Whitt, made a detailed plea for opening up the spectrum and noted additional safeguards to minimize, if not eliminate, interference issues.

Under Google's proposal, a TV white space device will not transmit on a channel until it first has received an "all clear" signal for that channel, either directly from a database of licensed transmitters in that area, or from a geo-located device with access to that database.

Whitt's letter states that any device without geo-location and database access would not transmit at all, unless and until it has successfully received advance permission from such a device.

In addition, Whitt said all TV white space devices would be blocked from transmitting by any wireless microphone beacon in that channel. "These beacons should be quite inexpensive, and would be used in conjunction with existing wireless microphones, so there would be no need to replace legacy devices," he said.

Seeing red over white space

But the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which opposes the White Spaces Coalition's plans, said the new measures aren't enough.

"We are pleased that Google now seems to realize that spectrum sensing alone won't protect viewers against interference from unlicensed devices," said NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton in a statement. "Unfortunately, simply adding geo-location and beacon sensing does not mean that mobile operation is suddenly feasible.

"Portable, mobile personal device operation in the same band as TV broadcasting continues to be a guaranteed recipe for producing interference and should not be allowed under any circumstances," he added.

The debate is likely to continue with lobbyists on both sides urging government action to help their cause. Google argues consumer's stand to benefit from the additional access.

"Coupled with the 'Android' open source platform for mobile consumer devices, TV white spaces can provide uniquely low-cost mobile broadband coverage for all Americans," Whitt said in his letter.

He noted over thirty other companies are working with Google through the Open Handset Alliance to develop a software stack, including the operating system, middleware, and user applications that will all be open source. "Android-powered handsets should begin appearing commercially later this year," said Whitt, "and would be an excellent match for the TV white space."

He also said the white space spectrum could be a boon to getting broadband services to rural areas as well as public safety officials.

That all sounds like a great deal to ABI Research analyst Nadine Manjaro - but for Google, not consumers.

"Google's main interest is to get everyone to open up access so they can ride on the network for free and make billions off their ad model and not have to pay for it," Manjaro, told InternetNews.com. "Is the white space spectrum 'grossly underutilized' as Google says? Probably. But that spectrum cost billions of dollars and the owners have the right to use it or not."

Manjaro concedes Google's proposal stands to optimize or make better use of what is now largely unused spectrum. But she thinks Google is unfairly framing its advocacy in a public service or altruistic light. "We're talking about a business venture," she said. "Let's call it what it is."