Take 2: Coalition mounts new campaign for ‘white space’

After a rebuff and some technical issues earlier this year, a coalition of technology vendors, consumer groups and think tanks has launched a campaign to persuade the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to approve wireless devices that would operate in so-called “white space” — unused television spectrum.

The Wireless Innovation Alliance, which launched a Web site Wednesday, is an expansion of the tech-centric White Spaces Coalition that has been pushing so-called white-space spectrum as a possible new broadband network. At Wednesday’s alliance launch, several other groups, including Free Press, the Media Access Project, TechNet, the Computing Technology Industry Association and Educause, joined the tech companies pushing for the FCC to approve broadcast white spaces for broadband use.

U.S. Representatives Jay Inslee, a Washington state Democrat, and Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, also lent their support.

Inslee called white space one of the “greatest untapped” sources for innovation in the U.S. “We’re just waiting for government to do its job, to set the rules of the road, so the geniuses in America can really use this tremendous resource,” he said.

The white spaces can help bring broadband to areas of the U.S. that have limited or no choices right now, Inslee added. The lack of broadband in many areas is “really a sad comment on our failure to move ahead as a nation,” he said. “This is one of my continuing frustrations — that we have not made adequate progress, and the availability of white spaces is one tool to attack that.”

Inslee and Blackburn were among six lawmakers who signed a letter, dated Tuesday, to the FCC, calling on the agency to wrap up its ongoing inquiry into white spaces.

Advocates of white-space technology have run into significant opposition and some technical problems this year.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), representing U.S. television stations, has raised concerns that white-space devices will interfere with TV signals. And more than 55 U.S. lawmakers have raised their own concerns about interference. “Placing these devices in the television band is believed to cause unacceptable interference to television reception for all Americans and impair coverage of news and sporting events by interfering with wireless microphones,” wrote Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, in an Oct. 9 letter to the FCC.

In addition, the FCC in July rejected a device built by Microsoft and other members of the White Spaces Coalition, saying it interfered with TV signals. Microsoft later said the device was damaged and “operated at a severely degraded level.”

In September, Microsoft and Philips Electronics North America submitted new tests from a functioning device to the FCC. The group is awaiting FCC action on the new device.

NAB still has concerns, said Dennis Wharton, the group’s executive vice-president for media relations. White spaces supporters are “playing Russian Roulette” with TV signals, he said. “It is unfortunate that Microsoft and Google continue to try to muscle their way through Washington in support of a technology that simply does not work.”

Blackburn urged the FCC not to “pick winners and losers,” but to base its decision on objective tests of the white spaces devices. A lot of areas in rural west Tennessee have no broadband, she said. “It is essential for economic development,” she said.

Asked if any other countries are using white-space spectrum for broadband devices, alliance members said they aren’t aware of any formal projects.

Other countries are looking to the U.S., said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “The United States has led the world on unlicensed technologies from the get-go and if we don’t want to lose that leadership, we need to keep moving forward,” he said.

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