RealTime IT News

Will White Spaces Save the World?

Larry Page
Google's Larry Page

WASHINGTON -- If you were to name the subject of a Capitol Hill tech-policy discussion as TV white spaces, or, in longhand, the unused spectrum that currently sits as a buffer zone between television channels, it would fail the man-on-the-street test. People's eyes would glaze over.

But if you were to describe it as a solution to some of the great problems facing the country -- improving our schools, reigniting U.S. innovation in emerging areas such as telemedicine and clean energy, and bridging the digital divide to deliver Internet access to underserved and impoverished Americans -- then it might get some traction.

Boosters of the issue are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue an order that would free up the white spaces as unlicensed spectrum to support a new class of wireless broadband, similar to Wi-Fi, only stronger. "Wi-Fi on steroids," as Google co-founder Larry Page has taken to calling it.

The unused spectrum in the white-spaces is more powerful than Wi-Fi, both for its ability to penetrate through thick walls and reach long distances, and the way it can negotiate around obstacles such as a mountain ridge or dense foliage, which can impede broadband access in rural areas.

Page was the headliner at today's event, stumping for a cause that is at the top of Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) policy agenda on a whirlwind Washington trip where he is meeting with lawmakers and members of the FCC to promote the issue.

Both sides are shoring up

But he was by no means alone. The policy talk was hosted by the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a coalition whose members include tech companies such as Microsoft, Dell and Motorola, the computing-industry association CompTIA, and a broad array of nonprofit and advocacy groups whose interests range from civil rights to education to media reform.

Representatives from many of those groups were on hand to talk up the benefits of a network built on white-space spectrum.

TV broadcasters and other opponents of white-space usage claim that using the white space would interfere with television broadcasts that occupy adjacent spectrum, and have warned that it could derail the nationwide transition to digital television scheduled for next February.

The FCC, which has been considering the white-space issue since 2003, recently conducted a series of field tests, taking prototype devices into places like Broadway theaters and FedEx Field in Washington to determine how serious the interference issues are, not only with television broadcasts, but wireless microphones, which use the unlicensed white-space spectrum. The results of the recent tests aren't expected until next month.

Previous prototypes submitted for testing have failed, which has been a favorite argument of critics.

To Page, those devices were primitive iterations that were meant only as proof-of-concept.

"What's being debated now is, 'Well there might be issues, so those can never be solved, so you shouldn't even try,'" he said, in mocking imitation of white-space critics.

"There is nobody in the world who could truthfully tell you that you can't produce these devices without interference. That's just garbage. Not true."

To promote the cause, Google has launched the campaign, "Free the Airwaves," a petition drive that has collected more than 15,000 signatures calling on the FCC to allow usage of the unlicensed white-space spectrum.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) was dismissive of Google's campaign, reiterating the failures of previous test devices, and warning that white-space usage threatens TV broadcasts.

"All the petition drives in the world cannot mask the fact that Google's own allies have admitted that these devices don't work," NAB Vice President Dennis Wharton said in a statement. "Absent proven interference protection, Google's gamble on the future of television is not a risk Americans should be asked to take."

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