White space debate heats up as FCC decision approaches

Over the next few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to make a decision that could completely change the mobile-broadband landscape in the United States for years to come.

This summer, the FCC and several wireless carriers and device manufacturers have been testing devices that operate on television “white spaces,” or pieces of unlicensed spectrum currently unused by television stations on the VHF and UHF frequency bands. Internet companies, such as Google, and device manufacturers, such as Motorola, have been pushing for the FCC to open up the spectrum for unlicensed use, arguing it would help bring mobile broadband to under-served regions and would help close the so-called “digital divide” between many urban and rural areas in the United States.

The companies have met staunch opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which doesn’t want mobile Internet devices operating on unlicensed spectrum clashing with broadcasts on nearby frequencies. Past FCC tests on white-space devices have lent credence to the broadcasters’ concerns, because some devices were found to interfere with other broadcasts and were unable to detect consistently or accurately the presence of other TV or wireless microphone signals.

Additionally, telecom giant Verizon recently indicated it also opposes opening up the unlicensed spectrum for device use, asserting that the company has been unimpressed with the white-space device tests so far and that it “generally . . . favored licensed spectrum” for wireless devices.

The issues that have to be resolved

Both sides in the white-spaces debate have clear and understandable economic motives. On the “pro” side, such tech companies as Google and Microsoft have a clear vested interest in spreading the mobile Web to as many people as possible, because expansion will generate more revenue for their search engine and Windows Mobile platforms, respectively. Similarly, laptop and smart-phone manufacturers, such as Dell and Motorola, want to sell more devices to more people; and being able to use mobile devices on unlicensed spectrum will open up a whole new market.

Lining up against using white-space spectrum are broadcasters that want to protect the quality of their broadcasts on licensed spectrum by eliminating any and all potential sources of interference. Kelly Williams, the senior director of engineering and technology policy for the NAB, staked out an inflexible position at a Wireless Communications Association meeting earlier this year, saying any mobile-device use of white spaces was unacceptable and no amount of testing by the FCC could change his mind.

Specifically, Williams said it would be impossible for the FCC to approve using unlicensed portable devices on white spaces, because doing so inevitably would interfere with the rights of licensed spectrum holders. “We don’t like transmitters that move around,” he said. “I don’t see how a truly personal and portable device can actually work on those white spaces because it would need to know at all times just how far away it is from a consumer’s TV set, and also what channel that TV is set to. It can never know that.”

Tech companies have been trying to work around this problem by creating devices that can detect rival signals in the area and automatically shut down when they begin interfering with licensed spectrum already in use. Thus, for instance, a Bluetooth handset operating unlicensed on white spaces might flip off automatically if it came close to a working television. However, there has been a growing realization among white-space device-use proponents that adding sensing abilities to devices by itself won’t cut it, because the FCC’s tests found that device-sensing capabilities were poor at detecting such devices as wireless microphones that also use unlicensed frequencies.

Motorola has started working on a solution to this problem, testing out its geo-location database to help provide protection for existing broadcast signals. Essentially, geo-location tracks mobile devices by locating them through their specific IP address, media-access-control address, radio-frequency identification or other location-based information. From there, the database looks at the licensed spectrums being used within a given area, and ranks the remaining available spectrums by their strength and closeness to a spectrum already in use. Finally, the database automatically selects the optimal white-space spectrum for the device based on its location, then switches the device to a different spectrum once it moves to a different location.

Motorola concedes that these geo-location capabilities might not assuage the NAB, which has stated clearly that it wants no mobile devices operating on unlicensed television spectrum. However, the company is optimistic that the FCC soon will allow their devices to operate on the spectrum and will find that geo-location practically eliminates the risk of interference.

The road ahead

Although no one knows for certain how the FCC eventually will rule, both sides have been gearing up their public relations machines to make their case. Device-manufacturers Motorola and Philips have gone to the press to stoke expectations for how well their products performed in the FCC tests, while Verizon has tried to temper public expectations by indicating that more work would have to be done before it could come out in favor of white-space use.

The NAB, for its part, has created a campaign called “Interference Zones” that urges people to tell Congress to ban the use of unlicensed devices on white spaces. The association is illustrating this point by displaying a cartoon of a sinister-looking cell phone named Wally that gleefully interferes with Direct TV signals. Google, which so far has been one of the most vocal proponents of white-space use, launched its Free the Airwaves campaign this week to explain the white-spaces debate to the general public in layman’s terms. “You don’t need to be a telecommunications expert to understand that freeing the ‘white spaces’ has the potential to transform wireless Internet as we know it,” says Minnie Ingersoll, the product manager for Google’s Alternative Access Team. “There’s no doubt that if these airwaves are opened up to unlicensed use, more people will be using the Internet.”

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