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.”

Next page: Google stands to benefit…

Rep. Jay Inlee

Rep. Jay Inlee (D-WA)

Page 2 of 2

Google would benefit

Page has
admitted
, perhaps obviously, that Google has a lot to gain by more
people connecting to the Internet. He said that if the FCC were to free up
the spectrum in question, Google, Microsoft and scores of other technology
companies would quickly pony up the hundreds of millions of dollars to bring
devices to market that would be guaranteed to not interfere with broadcast
signals.

“All that the FCC needs to say is that we will allow people to use the
spectrum in an unlicensed way if their devices don’t interfere. Literally —
that one sentence — that’s all that needs to be said.”

In order to avoid interference, the new class of devices would come
equipped with a geo-sensing ability to automatically detect and avoid
television spectrum that was being used.

But the speakers generally tried to brush the technical issues aside as
trivial, preferring instead to focus on the great social and economic good
they claim would result from the new network. At times, the issue took on
the dimensions of a moral imperative.

“As a matter of principle, you always have to decide who’s on the good
side and who’s on the bad side,” said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). “It is clear
that the white hats are on the side of white spaces.”

Inslee was the only lawmaker in attendance, but he was surrounded by
like-minded advocates who offered impassioned pleas of support for the
wireless network that seemed an elixir for so many of society’s ills.

Mark Lloyd, vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,
explained how the network could reach through old, thick-walled building in
urban centers that are resistant to wiring projects and whose residents are
often unable to afford commercial broadband access.

Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network,
a group that champions rural broadband access, said the white-space spectrum
could deliver reliable, high-speed access in remote areas with limited
service from incumbent providers.

Similar benefits would come for K-12 schools, community colleges, and first responders. Neeraj Srivastava, Dell’s director of technology policy, described new applications that would enable reliable videoconferencing and telemedicine from remote locations, as well as delivering on the long-deferred dream of linking up the audio and video equipment in a home. And on went the list of promises.

Of course, from Google’s standpoint, the timing is not a coincidence.
Yesterday, Page and fellow Google co-founder Sergey Brin were on hand in New
York for the long-awaited unveiling of the first mobile device
powered by the Android operating system, an open-source project led by
Google.

Opening up inexpensive access to mobile broadband spectrum that would
support any device, including future iterations of T-Mobile’s Android-based
G1 phone, would certainly funnel more revenue into Google’s coffers.

But then again, it’s a rare issue these days that Google and Microsoft
find themselves agreeing on.

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