Having lost its own bid, Google advocates giving analog TV space to public

Since the 1940s, the US' TV space has been referred to as "the public airwaves." Now, Google is using a Web site to build public support for an effort to convince the FCC that it should be allowed to use that space in the public interest.

It was one of the biggest losers in the US Federal Communications Commission's auction of 700 MHz spectrum last spring, having at one time promised to bid billions for space in the high UHF television band that ended up going to Verizon and AT&T. But now, Google is trying to stake a new position for itself in the debate over what happens to the rest of the airspace -- the so-called "white spaces," in-between the blocks of spectrum that fetched billions for the federal government -- by suggesting the FCC give it away.

"Make no mistake: Open access to this unused bandwidth would surely be good for our own bottom line (not to mention those of many of our industry peers)," reads the inaugural posting for Google's new advocacy Web site on the issue, called Free the Airwaves which just went live this morning. "Better access to the Internet means more people doing Web searches and using our software products. But we think the public interest here is paramount, and just as clear. Opening up the vast unused portion of spectrum will enable a new generation of innovation and competition from which consumers -- especially those to whom the white spaces could soon deliver high-speed online access -- should benefit tremendously, both from a wealth of new products and services and from far lower cell phone and Internet access bills."

Google's support for opening unreserved frequencies to the general public -- or to any service provider that wants to try non-impeding service there -- is nothing new, as the company made its position clear as early as last fall. In March, in an ex parte filing with the FCC (PDF available here), Google's Washington-based counsel Richard Whitt advised commissioners that the abundance of unused airspace could provide "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide ubiquitous wireless broadband access to all Americans."

But Whitt went on to state that such an opportunity wasn't just in the public's interest, but in Google's as well, as freeing the white spaces would give it a platform to launch services on Android-based phones.

As Whitt wrote, "Coupled with the 'Android' open source platform for mobile consumer devices, TV white spaces can provide uniquely low-cost mobile broadband coverage for all Americans. As announced last fall, over thirty other companies are working with Google through the Open Handset Alliance to develop a fully open source software stack, including the operating system, middleware, and user applications. Android-powered handsets should begin appearing commercially later this year, and would be an excellent match for the TV white space."

Last month, the FCC conducted its latest round of field testing of prototype white space devices, after tests involving a Microsoft-built prototype in February proved a spectacular failure. The second round of tests concluded late last month, with participants such as Motorola saying they're "pleased" with the results thus far.

But the National Football League, which was invited to participate in one test during a Redskins/Bills exhibition game last week, apparently indicated that test to be a failure as well. White space device prototypes reportedly were unable to detect the transmission of wireless microphones -- for instance, the kind that referees wear on the field -- prompting Shure, the manufacturer of those microphones, to proclaim in advance that those tests will "conclusively show that spectrum sensing white space devices will cause harmful interference to wireless microphones during live events." The FCC itself yet to issue a final report.

The secret to the would-be success of so-called "white space devices" -- once they uncover just what that secret is -- is their ability to detect whether designated frequencies are in use by other, perhaps larger transmitters, and then shift their own frequencies so as not to interfere. Both sender and receiver have to know the shift is taking place, so that wireless communications devices, for instance, can change their channels. But they have to do so seamlessly, so that not only the wireless customers never know the shift happened, but also whoever else is using those frequencies -- for instance, TV broadcasters.

For their own part, TV broadcasters place no faith whatsoever in white space devices' ability to work. Last month, after the FCC announced its second round of plans, National Association of Broadcasters' Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton issued another skeptical statement: "NAB has no quarrel with field tests, but based upon multiple failures of unlicensed devices in laboratory testing thus far, we remain highly skeptical that this technology will ever work as advertised."

Meanwhile, Free the Airwaves is urging readers to sign an online petition urging the FCC to support a technology that, in its words, could "pave the way for universal wireless broadband access."

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