Google enters white spaces debate

Google hopes a new Web site will help convince the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to allow a new generation of wireless broadband devices to connect via unused television spectrum.

Google on Monday launched the Free the Airwaves campaign, in an effort to drum up public support for new wireless devices to use the so-called white spaces, empty wireless spectrum in bands controlled by U.S. television stations.

Google and several other tech vendors are now engaged in a public-relations battle with TV stations and makers of wireless microphones, who have raised concerns about possible interference from white spaces devices.

The goal of the new Web site is to help the U.S. public better understand the issues, said Minnie Ingersoll a product manager with Google’s alternative access team. “Now is an important time for people who care about the future of the Internet to make their voices heard,” she said. Most U.S. residents are “unfamiliar” with the white spaces debate before the FCC, she added.

Google and other tech vendors have called on the FCC to open up the white spaces as a way to create wireless broadband networks nationwide. All U.S. TV markets have some unused spectrum controlled by television stations, and white space spectrum would allow broadband signals that travel farther and have faster speeds than current Wi-Fi, white spaces supporters say.

But the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and wireless microphone vendors such as Shure have opposed the effort to open up the white spaces to new devices. Many wireless microphones now operate in the white spaces without FCC licenses, and microphone makers, as well as TV stations, suggest makers of prototype white spaces devices haven’t shown that their devices won’t cause harmful interference.

FCC tests of prototype white spaces devices have yielded mixed results so far. Between mid-2007 and March, devices failed three times in FCC tests, and earlier this month, a prototype device failed to sense wireless microphone signals at a preseason National Football League game.

However, a prototype device tested at the Majestic Theatre in New York City did perform correctly, according to the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a group of tech companies pushing for new uses for the spectrum.

The NFL tests “conclusively show that spectrum sensing white space devices will cause harmful interference to wireless microphones during live events,” Mark Brunner, Shure’s senior director of public and industry relations, said in a statement. “Simply stated, the prototype devices were unable to consistently identify operating wireless microphones or distinguish occupied from unoccupied TV channels.”

The prototype device at the football game also failed to detect when wireless microphones were switched on, “an occurrence that takes place multiple times during any NFL game,” Brunner added.

Google officials disputed Shure’s description of the NFL test, saying the tests were successful. The problem at the football game was “more an issue with that specific device,” said Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington, D.C., telecom and media counsel. One device tested didn’t sense wireless microphones because those microphones were using spectrum already occupied by digital TV signals, meaning the device found “false positives,” he said.

“The device did not operate in terms of transmitting a signal, because it found that particular channel was occupied,” Whitt said. “There would be zero chance of causing any interference to the signals, because in that situation, there certainly would not be a transmission of the signal in the first place.”

During a Google press conference Monday, two men representing rural areas called on the FCC to approve the white spaces devices, saying large broadband providers have ignored their residents. Native Americans in Southern California do not have the same access to broadband as neighboring communities, said Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for Tribal Digital Village, based in San Diego.

“There’s a serious broadband problem in rural America,” added Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Related Content:

Offering spectrum in exchange for free wireless Internet pondered by FCC

Industry Canada names spectrum auction applicants

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