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Technology companies push use of white space spectrum for Internet services

A coalition of major technology companies continue to aggressively lobby federal officials to use the white space spectrum between television broadcast channels, for wireless consumer devices as well as new Internet access. Now, with critical technology beginning to be tested by the FCC, the stakes are raised for broadcasters, production companies and Internet service providers.

Key to the coalition's goals is whether a prototype device just delivered to an FCC test lab will perform as promised. Built by Microsoft, the test unit was designed to demonstrate that white space spectrum — unused airwaves between operating channels used by TV stations and wireless microphone users — can be used for wireless Internet services without causing interference with licensed broadcast transmissions. The FCC has until July to report the test results.

Using unlicensed white space spectrum is a politically charged issue in Washington because of the perceived threat of competition it holds for the powerful telecom and cable television companies. Broadcasters are worried about interference with their transmissions, and production companies fear their wireless mics and other equipment will be stepped on.

If passed in to law, the initiative would permit low-power unlicensed devices such as laptop Wi-Fi cards, wireless keyboards and network routers to use the white space.

White space spectrum is also being championed in Congress as a means to get broadband access to rural communities. The law would require the FCC to permit license-free use of the unassigned broadcast spectrum between 54MHz and 698MHz within 180 days of enactment.

While the FCC is obligated to protect license holders from such interference, several white space bills introduced in Congress have placed added pressure on the commission to complete the tests as quickly as possible.

The well-funded companies behind the technology are Microsoft, Google, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Philips. If the prototype just submitted for FCC testing passes the test, the companies hope to launch new services by early 2009, the year the analog spectrum will be returned by broadcasters.

Many industry analysts agree that the white space group succeeds, consumers could see a flood of new devices enabling them to bypass the networks of incumbent service providers like AT&T and Verizon Communications to get online.

"The telephone companies are terrified they'll lose 40 percent of their wireless minutes, because you'll be able to connect from work or home and bypass their wireless networks," J.H. Snider told MarketWatch. Snider is research director of the wireless future program at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based policy institute that has long advocated allowing use of white spaces.

Those major telephone and cable companies are warily watching the tests from the sidelines. As they do, the coalition continues to lobby Congress and the FCC. They promise to spend the necessary money to back the launch of a major new service.

"As the world's largest producers of consumer electronics, software, semiconductors, personal computers, and peripheral devices, the coalition's members stand ready to commit substantial resources to bring these advancements to consumers," the coalition said in a statement to the FCC.