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Google's Page Stumps for White Space

Google's spectrum battle did not end with the recent auction.

Speaking this morning at the progressive D.C. think tank the New America Foundation, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) cofounder Larry Page laid out the case for making the unused portions of the television spectrum -- the so-called "white spaces" -- available for wireless broadband networks.

"This has definitely been a passion [of mine] and something I think is really important," Page said. "With white spaces you really have an opportunity to build something that is distributed, like the Internet."

For Google and many others, the problem is that mobile networks are not distributed and open. Page's D.C. tour comes at a time when an increasing number of groups have been agitating for mobile carriers to open their networks to enable any device or software application to run on them.

In anticipation of the digital television conversion next February, the FCC recently concluded the largest spectrum auction in history, selling nearly $20 billion worth of airwaves to cable Internet and telecom companies to build out high-speed wireless networks and deliver broadband to portions of the country whose Internet access is currently limited to dial-up service.

During his D.C. junket, Page is meeting with lawmakers and members of the Federal Communications Commission to press his company's policy agenda. This morning's talk was a chance to make his case on friendly turf -- Google CEO Eric Schmidt has served on the board of the New America Foundation since 1999, and will become chairman of the organization next month.

In addition to freeing up the white spaces, Google has been calling for regulators to ensure that Verizon adheres to the open-access requirements that came with the spectrum it won at auction, and pushing for government action to block Internet service providers from slowing or degrading certain traffic on their networks -- the issue known as Net neutrality.

Page sees the unlicensed white spaces, which fall between broadcast channels 2 and 51, as the springboard for a network that would be "Wi-Fi on steroids." Wi-Fi, he noted, runs at the same frequency as microwave ovens, spectrum that, until recently, was considered unusable for communications, and has therefore not been licensed.

In agitating for white space availability, Google, Microsoft and several other technology companies come up against a powerful foe. Television broadcasters claim that devices that run on the white space spectrum are unreliable, and could interfere with television signals being broadcast in neighboring spectrum, and potentially disrupt the digital television transmission.

Page accused the broadcasters of overstating the threat of interference from white space devices, which he said has had the effect of politicizing the debate. The technical workaround is easily imagined, Page said. Devices would use geolocation technology to distinguish between the empty channels and the active ones in any given area, and be pre-programmed to run only on the otherwise unused spectrum.

But the FCC has already examined and rejected prototype devices, a point which the National Association of Broadcasters has made frequently in its opposition to white-space spectrum use.

"Given the numerous device failures that have resulted during FCC testing, it seems a little disingenuous for Mr. Page to simply dismiss the interference concerns," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said in a statement, noting that dozens of legislators and non-broadcasting groups have raised similar concerns. "Jeopardizing the future of digital television with an unproven technology would be unwise and unwarranted."

To Page, the logical solution is that the FCC open the spectrum with rules in place prohibiting interference. Then, too, he argued that companies would be unlikely to market and ship devices that hadn't been thoroughly vetted.

Page admitted that his company stands to gain from a faster, more pervasive Internet. "If we have 10 percent more connectivity, we have 10 percent more revenue," he said. "Those are big numbers for us."

In that vein, Google has invested $500 million in the joint venture between Clearwire and Sprint to form a nationwide WiMax network.

But Page also sees in the unused spectrum an opportunity for the United States to catch up to the fifteen countries it trails in broadband uptake. "I think there's a huge opportunity to get connectivity to people, and specifically broadband," he said, adding that about 97 percent of the nation's spectrum is unused at any given time. "It's a huge opportunity for our economy."