Google co-founder Larry Page made a rare trip to Washington this week. No, he wasn't lobbying for net neutrality or being grilled about Internet censorship in China. It was all about the white spaces"”and Google's growing fixation with wireless communications.
With opposition mounting, Page came to bolster Google's push to gain public access to these white spaces, slivers of wireless spectrum between the broadcast channels used by TV stations. These slivers were originally designed to prevent interference between over-the-air TV broadcasts. But with TV stations moving to new frequencies under a government-ordered switch to digital broadcasting, some see opportunity in those white spaces.
Google (GOOG) and some odd bedfellows, including Microsoft (MSFT), have urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to turn this spectrum over to the public for free, unlicensed use"”much like there are designated slices of the airwaves for Wi-Fi networks set up by homes, businesses, and cities. Until recently, though some broadcasters opposed the idea, it looked as if the technology companies would get their way, and that it was only a matter of time before consumers might be allowed to use white spaces for speedier mobile Internet access.
Arguing for the status quo
Not anymore. The first hint of trouble came in late March, when the trade group that represents the U.S. cellular industry urged the FCC to auction off the spectrum to the highest bidder instead. 'We believe it's a superior approach,' says Joel Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Assn. 'It's a proven model. It protects service quality for consumers.' And, based on the $20 billion raised earlier this year in a federal spectrum auction, 'there's a strong demand for licensed spectrum,' he argues.
Then there are those who want to leave things just the way they are. And the white spaces are in fact already used for limited purposes. In early May, the country music and sports industries voiced concerns to the FCC that unlicensed devices might interfere with wireless microphones used by musicians and sportscasters during live events. Similarly, GE Healthcare (GE) recently warned 'about the potential for harmful interference' to medical equipment that use white spaces, asking the FCC to delay redeployment of some spectrum until 2010 so hospitals have time to phase out older machines.
The debate is growing more vocal now because the FCC, which has been reviewing the issue for four years, may be inching closer to a decision. Interested parties have contacted the FCC"”via letters and personal visits"”nearly twice as many times in May than in April.
FCC report could come within weeks
In the past year, several prototypes of white-space devices failed FCC tests. But the agency recently lab-tested several newer prototypes made by Motorola (MOT), Philips Electronics, and a startup named Adaptrum, and may begin field testing soon. 'The FCC is committed to moving forward on TV white spaces testing,' says FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.
The FCC may issue a report on the field tests within weeks. 'We expect a rule by late summer,' says Brian Peters, spokesperson for Wireless Innovation Alliance, which promotes unlicensed use of the spectrum on behalf of members including Microsoft, Google, Dell (DELL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). But with all the lobbying from the opposition, 'it's less certain now' what that rule will look like, says Rebecca Arbogast, principal at Stifel Nicolaus.
Enter Larry Page.
Better broadband access
Page also argued that unlicensed white spaces offer a way for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the world in broadband access. For the second year running, the U.S. ranked 15th among the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development in terms of broadband availability, a recent survey found (BusinessWeek.com, 5/22/08). Today, 10% of Americans still don't have access to DSL or cable broadband, according to consultancy Parks Associates.
Google and others also see white spaces as a way to reignite interest in municipal Wi-Fi networks, many of which are struggling or even being turned off due to financial and service-quality problems. Because the white-space spectrum is more robust, networks using those frequencies would require a fourth to a fifth as many Wi-Fi transmitters to cover an area, according to Michael Calabrese, vice-president of the New America Foundation. Thus, network construction would cost less, while the wireless connections would be speedier.
Should white spaces be approved for unlicensed use, Page hinted, Google might even build some networks for cities with its own funds. 'We have money to invest,' he said. 'We'd probably do it if we could do it on a reasonable scale.' Google currently operates a Wi-Fi network in Mountain View, Calif., used by 40,000 people.
Google has plenty to gain
Yet Google has hinted at major wireless incursions before, only to hang by the sidelines. Before the last FCC auction, the Internet search company pushed hard for open-access rules requiring mobile operators to allow more devices and services on their networks. Google vowed to participate in the auction if such rules were adopted, but once they were, the company made what appeared to be just a token bid before withdrawing.
That said, Google does have plenty to gain from open access to white spaces. White spaces are critical to the adoption of the Android operating system for cell phones that Google spearheaded last year with hopes that some Android-based devices would connect with that unlicensed spectrum in addition to traditional cellular networks.
And since Google makes most of its money from displaying ads alongside its search results and on other Web pages, more ubiquitous access to the Internet could mean more business. 'If we have 10% better (broadband) connectivity in the U.S., it translates into 10% more revenues for us,' Page said.
Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.
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