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Debate rages over free wireless spectrum

Google has upped the ante in its lobbying efforts to get the FCC to approve freeing up new wireless spectrum.

The debate over new unlicensed spectrum the Federal Communications Commission is considering opening up is heating up as Google ups the ante with a new lobbying Web site.

Google on Monday launched the new site called to provide consumers with a voice, the company's policy guru said during a press conference call.

Google and other technology companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Motorola have been lobbying the FCC for months to open up what's known as "white space" spectrum for unlicensed use after the digital TV transition early next year. These slivers of spectrum that sit between TV channels as buffers to ensure that TV channels don't interfere with each could be used to provide broadband wireless services.

But broadcasters say using these channels will cause interference with their broadcast signals and cause major issues for people watching TV.

"Microsoft's applications fail all the time," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "But for us our signals need to get to our audience, so it's a different world. And it's not acceptable for there to be any interference."

The debate is coming to head as the FCC finishes field tests of proof-of-concept devices used to detect and avoid spectrum already in use. The results of the tests have been mixed. Some companies claim that geolocation-based technology has proven that it can interference with existing spectrum holders. Meanwhile, a field test of spectrum sensing technology at a major sporting venue proved that technology still has some problems.

"Microsoft's applications fail all the time. "But for us our signals need to get to our audience, so it's a different world. And it's not acceptable for there to be any interference."
--Dennis Wharton, National Association of Broadcasters

The FCC is expected to release a report of the test results next month. And it will likely vote on whether to open the spectrum in the next few months.

It's clear that this has become as much of a political debate as it has a technical one. On the one hand, the National Association of Broadcasters is pointing to the tests as evidence that interference can't be avoided.

On the other side, Google and the technology community say that these are simply proof of concept devices and not even prototypes that could be used in commercial products. In fact, Google's Whitt said he is certain his company and others would pour millions of dollars into development if the FCC approved the use of white spaces and gave specific guidelines and rules for products.

The NAB and others, such as Verizon Wireless, which also opposes the use of white spaces, certainly have their own business motivations for opposing the use of white spaces.

The NAB may claim it is afraid of interference, but the reality it members don't want to give up control of airwaves they believes are theirs. Verizon Wireless and other wireless operators don't want competitors to get their hands on free spectrum that they could use to build competing services.

That said, Google and the rest of the technology companies lobbying for the freeing of white spaces have their own motivations and interests to consider. The more wireless spectrum and broadband services available, the more Google can make from advertising. The company hasn't denied this. Intel, Microsoft, and Motorola also benefit as they can each sell more products and services to consumers who use this unlicensed spectrum.

Better coverage
But my gut feeling is that this new spectrum won't likely become a major threat to wireless operators, such as Verizon, nor will it cause any disruption in TV service. But it could drastically improve the coverage of broadband particularly in rural areas.

The 300MHz to 400MHz spectrum that is being made available through the use of white spaces is not contiguous across the United States, so it's unlikely that any company could use the spectrum to build a nationwide network to compete against the major carriers.

That said, much of the white space spectrum that will be available will be in sparsely populated rural areas where there are fewer TV broadcasters and little access to broadband. And because the spectrum is ideally suited for rural areas with good propagation characteristics, it could be used by rural communities to blanket their regions with broadband access.

This is exactly what Wally Bowen, from the Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, N.C., and Matthew Rantanen, who works with the Tribal Digital Village in San Diego, Calif.--which represents Native American tribes--say they hope will happen if the white spaces are offered to the public without licenses. They say that broadband operators are currently underserving their constituents and that access to free spectrum would help get broadband to more people in the country.

So far it looks like FCC Chairman Kevin Martin agrees. He was quoted Monday in The Wall Street Journal in favor of opening up white space spectrum to encourage more broadband deployments.

"Spectrum is very valuable and we want to make sure it's being used as efficiently as possible," he is quoted as saying in the Journal. "The idea of trying to utilize the 'white spaces' from a consumer perspective would be a good win for everyone."

Technology companies have also proven that they can mitigate interference issues through proper engineering. Just look at the use of Wi-Fi. The technology uses unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz band, and there are specifications to ensure that Wi-Fi devices don't interfere with microwave ovens and garage door openers that operate at the same frequency.

But even if the FCC is to allow the use of white spaces, Google and others are concerned that the FCC might succumb to pressure from the broadcasting industry to put onerous rules on the spectrum that will make it virtually useless. Some critics say that the FCC's rules on low-power FM devices and ultra wide band devices have restricted them so much they can barely be used.

"When you look at low power FM or ultrawide band rules, the technology has great promise but the Commission adopted rules that constrained it to the detriment of consumers," Whitt said. "So of course there are concerns that that the rules could be too limiting."

The NAB says it only trying to protect the TV viewing public.

"NAB supports new technology and ending the digital divide," Wharton said. "What we can't support is a multibillion-dollar spectrum giveaway to Google and Microsoft that threatens interference-free television."