Google's white-space fixation

Olga Kharif
02 Jun 2008

Google co-founder Larry Page made a rare trip to Washington this week. No, he wasn't lobbying for net neutrality or being grilled about Internet censorship in China. It was all about the white spaces"”and Google's growing fixation with wireless communications.

With opposition mounting, Page came to bolster Google's push to gain public access to these white spaces, slivers of wireless spectrum between the broadcast channels used by TV stations. These slivers were originally designed to prevent interference between over-the-air TV broadcasts. But with TV stations moving to new frequencies under a government-ordered switch to digital broadcasting, some see opportunity in those white spaces.

Google (GOOG) and some odd bedfellows, including Microsoft (MSFT), have urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to turn this spectrum over to the public for free, unlicensed use"”much like there are designated slices of the airwaves for Wi-Fi networks set up by homes, businesses, and cities. Until recently, though some broadcasters opposed the idea, it looked as if the technology companies would get their way, and that it was only a matter of time before consumers might be allowed to use white spaces for speedier mobile Internet access.

Arguing for the status quo

Not anymore. The first hint of trouble came in late March, when the trade group that represents the U.S. cellular industry urged the FCC to auction off the spectrum to the highest bidder instead. 'We believe it's a superior approach,' says Joel Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Assn. 'It's a proven model. It protects service quality for consumers.' And, based on the $20 billion raised earlier this year in a federal spectrum auction, 'there's a strong demand for licensed spectrum,' he argues.

Then there are those who want to leave things just the way they are. And the white spaces are in fact already used for limited purposes. In early May, the country music and sports industries voiced concerns to the FCC that unlicensed devices might interfere with wireless microphones used by musicians and sportscasters during live events. Similarly, GE Healthcare (GE) recently warned 'about the potential for harmful interference' to medical equipment that use white spaces, asking the FCC to delay redeployment of some spectrum until 2010 so hospitals have time to phase out older machines.

The debate is growing more vocal now because the FCC, which has been reviewing the issue for four years, may be inching closer to a decision. Interested parties have contacted the FCC"”via letters and personal visits"”nearly twice as many times in May than in April.

FCC report could come within weeks

In the past year, several prototypes of white-space devices failed FCC tests. But the agency recently lab-tested several newer prototypes made by Motorola (MOT), Philips Electronics, and a startup named Adaptrum, and may begin field testing soon. 'The FCC is committed to moving forward on TV white spaces testing,' says FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.

The FCC may issue a report on the field tests within weeks. 'We expect a rule by late summer,' says Brian Peters, spokesperson for Wireless Innovation Alliance, which promotes unlicensed use of the spectrum on behalf of members including Microsoft, Google, Dell (DELL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). But with all the lobbying from the opposition, 'it's less certain now' what that rule will look like, says Rebecca Arbogast, principal at Stifel Nicolaus.

Enter Larry Page.

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