Google's Richard Whitt talks about white spaces, open networks and spectrum auctions

On the Hot Seat with Google's Washington telecom and media counsel Richard Whitt

Google has become a major player in the wireless industry, not only with its Android operating system, but also with its support for unlicensed white space devices. The company also played a major role in the 700 MHz spectrum auction last year because of its role in pushing for open access provisions. Recently, FierceWireless associate editor Phil Goldstein spoke with Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, about the company's lobbying priorities, its role in the current white space debate and how it plans to approach future spectrum auctions.

What would you say are Google's top policy priorities in Washington?

Richard Whitt: Well if you're focused on the telecom and media side as opposed to some other areas, then I would say those issues that fall within the category of what we refer to as open Internet, or open platforms. That comprises the bulk of the issues that I work on, certainly at the FCC and on the Hill. So that would include things like network neutrality, both wireline and wireless applications of it. We'll probably be seeing legislative proposals coming down in the next few months on both of those sets of issues. And then we anticipate seeing that coming up at the FCC with a new chairman coming into place.

We have the white spaces proceeding. We've got a very strong framework out of the commission last November, but there are a number of next steps necessary to make sure that the requirements are implemented properly and that we can actually create a viable commercial offering using white spaces as quickly as possible. So a couple of the next steps that we're looking at include developing the geolocation database. And we've assembled a small but growing group of entities who have an interest in coming up with a common nomenclature, common mechanics and common concepts around what that database should look like.

FierceWireless: How quickly do you think a white spaces database can realistically be put in place?          

Richard Whitt: That's a good question. We have just started working with some of the companies whose business largely revolves around building databases. Neustar, ComSearch and now PCIA are all involved in our working group, the white spaces group on databases. We have our own databases that we use for a variety of purposes here at the company, but in terms of establishing these kinds of arrangements for usage... is a big thing for us. So we're learning an awful lot. It's been very helpful. I think the hope is that we can try to get a database up and running by the end of the year, but it's hard to know. We're still waiting for the public notice to come out from the FCC, which we hear is in turn waiting on the publication of the white spaces order, which we think is going to happen over the next week, Tuesday or Wednesday. [This has since been published in the Federal Register.] So, a long way of saying, a lot of it depends on the commission's processes, and how quickly industry can coalesce around some proposals that the commission will be ready to bless.

FierceWireless: How soon after the database is up and running do you think there could possibly be widespread commercial adoption?      

Richard Whitt: Well, that's a tricky concept--"widespread" and "adoption." There's considerable interest from what we can gauge in developing the devices, developing the services and building out networks, at least in some places. I think the challenge we see, as we discussed with FCC in our advocacy around the white spaces, is to ensure that the rules allow for enough flexibility in terms of the power limits so that you have access to enough white space channels across the country so that you can [then] build and operate a ubiquitous, nationwide broadband network. So with the current restrictions, the fixed power limits in the adjacent channels, that takes many of what otherwise would be white space channels in the major metropolitan areas off the table for use.

Under the current situation, we think that those constraints will limit the ability of larger entities to try to create nationwide networks. You may get smaller regional networks, you may get some rural networks, but you lose a lot of the economies of scale and scope that way. And particularly if you're trying to work some of the major handset manufacturers and chipmakers, that's a real challenge. So we're really hoping that we can get the rules in place along with the standards and the database, and that will help pave the way toward the more widespread adoption, the more widespread buildout of the white space networks. But I guess at this point it's a little too early in the year to know how that's going to shake out.

FierceWireless: Do you anticipate Google taking in part in any spectrum auctions that the FCC would hold in the future? And would you take the same approach that you took to the 700 MHz?

Richard Whitt: It's hard to say what we do in response to other potential auctions. Obviously, the D-Block is still out there. We submitted proposals in several rounds of comments where the commission was looking for some answers on how to undertake an auction of the D-Block spectrum. We did not request openness conditions there. In our view, the main challenge was: how do you create a commercially viable space for the private sector as well as helping to foster the whole public sector benefits on behalf of the first responders? And it seemed like a very tricky challenge. We took a look at it closely when we were initially looking at the C-Block as well as during the original auction, and decided against getting involved, largely because of a lot of the uncertainty around the conditions and the public safety community. We hope that is worked out quickly between Congress and the FCC, but I can't say whether or not we will get involved there. The other possibility I guess is something involving AWS-3, or maybe some other spectrum block that might become available for auction in the next few years. But I think it's too early to speculate what our thinking would be around such auctions.

FierceWireless: How heavily does Google expect the telecom companies and wireless industry to lobby against such net neutrality and open access provisions and what is its position in terms of combating those efforts?

Richard Whitt: Some have said that it's hard to define network neutrality and open Internet--I disagree. I think it's a problem sometimes people face--we're talking about an environment. We'd like to have an environment where consumers and innovators have the ability to freely use the Internet without anyone getting in their way. It's a pretty basic point. It's taking the end-to-end principle of the Internet and making sure that extends all the way through broadband networks. So it doesn't seem that much more complicated than that.

Depending on what part of that you're talking about, and wireline vs. wireless, I can understand the wireless carriers to this point have not had to deal with such a mandate. We had the Skype petition at the FCC, which is still spending, and we've got now the precedent of the C-Block. We've also go, as I mentioned before, the marketplace of open platforms being adopted as real business models. So, I'd like to think over time, particularly the wireless side, that the providers are going to become more comfortable with the concept. And if they begin adopting these concepts as part of their everyday business practices, that would start to obviate the need to have laws and regulations.

The problem has been to this point, there has been resistance, even on the simple matter of whether you can download applications to a handset. We had considerable problems going back three, four years now, documented well by Tim Wu and others, where those application downloads are routinely being blocked. It's not as much the case now. So as the situation changes, and both providers and consumers accept the notion of the open ethos of the Internet, and now being transcribed into the wireless world, then I think resistance would fall, and again, the need for outright legislation would fall. But it remains to be seen how all this plays out this year.