Google co-founder Larry Page marched on Washington this week to plead the case for unlicensed devices. He called on lawmakers to open up TV white spaces before the November elections, and said recent tests conducted by the FCC were “rigged deliberately.” The gist of Page’s message, according to Google’s chief lobbyist Richard Whitt: “After five years of testing and discussion, it is time to free the vacant ‘white spaces’ spectrum for affordable, nationwide high-speed wireless Internet connectivity.” Google, Microsoft, Dell and various other tech giants are pushing to use buffer channels in the TV spectrum for unlicensed communications devices. The buffer channels have been left mostly vacant for the last 50 years to prevent TV channels from interfering with one another. They are on occasion used for wireless microphone transmissions, usually in coordination with TV stations. Unlicensed devices would require no coordination and be untraceable should they cause interference to TV signals. The tech giants have proposed using sensing hardware to prevent interference, but none of the prototype devices tested by the FCC have worked properly. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton summarized the test results. “A July 2007 FCC report concluded that sample prototype ‘white space’ devices did not accurately detect broadcast signals and caused interference to TV broadcasting and wireless microphones,” Wharton said in a statement. “That setback was followed by a February 2008 power failure, in which a Microsoft representative admitted that their prototype device ‘just stopped working.’ In March, another Microsoft device ‘unexpectedly shut down,’ according to a Microsoft press release.” Writing Google’s Policy blog, Whitt said Page asserted instead that broadcasters and wireless mic makers “have unfortunately injected politics into the FCC’s testing process.” The August tests conducted at FedEx Field outside of Washington, D.C., and those done on Broadway in New York, “were intended to assess whether white space device prototypes could sense the presence of wireless microphone signals,” Whitt wrote. “However actions suggest that wireless microphone operators actually transmitted not on their normal channels but instead on channels occupied by TV broadcast signals. For instance during the Fed Ex Field test, wireless microphones were improperly used on the very station that carried the broadcast of the game. As a result, the white spaces devices naturally could not detect the microphone signals, as they were hidden by the much more powerful TV signals.” Google, Microsoft, Dell, et al, stand to make a flood of cash should the government open up white spaces to unlicensed devices. First and foremost is the “unlicensed” dynamic, meaning the companies would not have to pay dearly to license the spectrum, unlike Verizon and AT&T, which paid a combined $16 billion for broadcast spectrum in auctions earlier this year. (Spectrum that will open up once the DTV transition is complete.) Google actually placed the minimum bid on another swath of spectrum during those same auctions, but did not secure it. Soon after, the company came out swinging for unlicensed devices, ostensibly to be powered by Google’s Android software platform. Thus Google would possess the mobile equivalent of Microsoft’s Windows in a cell phone environment, but without the substantial expense of building a cell phone network. Verizon, for one, would like at the very least for the white spaces to be subject to a licensing scheme. Broadcast groups on Capitol Hill would like to see the issue go away. Responding to a petition drive initiated by Google, Wharton said, “It’s worth asking whether 13,000 petitions are more important than retaining interference protections for 113 million TV-watching homes. All the petition drives in the world cannot mask the fact that Google’s own allies have admitted that these devices don’t work. Absent proven interference protection, Google’s gamble on the future of television is not a risk Americans should be asked to take.”
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