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Google launches new push for access to vacant TV channels

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As we wrote earlier this year, Google is getting the hang of influencing policy in Washington. The company took another step -- albeit a small one -- today as it pushed federal regulators to open up a swath of wireless airwaves to Internet access.

For the first time, Google has launched an advocacy website, FreeTheAirwaves.com, to urge the Federal Communications Commission to allow yet-to-be-developed mobile gadgets to surf the Internet on vacant TV channels. The site includes an online petition that produces a form letter to the FCC, and it also allows people to upload to a special YouTube channel their own video testimonials about the importance of expanded wireless broadband access (such as the one above by Matthew Rantanen of Tribal Digital Village, which provides wireless Internet service to Indian tribes in San Diego and Riverside counties).

‘Google is a strong believer in the potential of this spectrum to bring Internet access to more of the country,’ Minnie Ingersoll, product manager for Google’s Alternative Access Team, told reporters in a conference call today. ‘Now is an important time for people who care about the future of the Internet to make their voices heard.’

Google, joined by other leading high-tech companies such as Microsoft and Dell, as well as some public interest groups, is locked in a battle with broadcasters over access to the unused TV channels in each market. Those airwaves are known as ‘white spaces.’

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The tech and public interest groups want the FCC to treat those airwaves like Wi-Fi, allowing anybody to use them for free with any mobile device they want. That’s different from the spectrum that wireless phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T lease from the federal government; they limit the type of devices that can access it.

TV has some of the best airwaves, able to carry ...

... signals over long distances and through walls and trees. Google co-founder Larry Page has said the white spaces have the potential to create Wi-Fi on steroids.

But broadcasters say those devices could interfere with TV signals. They’re particularly concerned because the digital signals that all full-power TV stations will be transmitting exclusively starting in February don’t handle interference very well.

Interference simply caused annoying static in the old analog signals (turn on a hair dryer near a TV set with an antenna and watch the white lines dance across the screen). But a digital picture will freeze or break up, broadcasters say. Major sports leagues also oppose allowing use of the white spaces by mobile devices because of concerns they’ll interfere with wireless microphones used by broadcasters.

The FCC decided in 2006 to take steps allowing fixed wireless devices, such as home broadband receivers, to use the vacant TV channels. But the commission deferred action on mobile devices because they must perform a trickier task: constantly searching for TV stations or wireless microphones from market to market and avoiding those signals. The FCC has been conducting tests on prototype devices.

The results of those tests have been unclear. Broadcasters say the devices have failed, but Google and other supporters of opening access to the white spaces say some of them have worked, and note that companies will not invest in true prototypes until they know there’s a market for them. The FCC has been mum on the latest results as it prepares to make a decision this fall.

The politically powerful National Assn. of Broadcasters has its own website on the issue, featuring evil-looking mobile devices messing up TV pictures. And the group slammed Google today for continuing to push for access to the airwaves. Dennis Wharton, the association’s executive vice president, said:

Google’s expensive campaign and new website cannot mask the fact that prototype white-space devices tested by the FCC have consistently failed. NAB supports new technology and ending the digital divide. What we can’t support is a multibillion-dollar spectrum giveaway to Google and Microsoft that threatens interference-free television.

Google said it’s trying to get the public involved in a complicated policy debate that has big stakes for the future of high-speed Internet access, particularly in rural areas. But Ingersoll also acknowledges that the company has a financial stake in seeing the FCC open up the unused TV channels.

‘More people on the Internet means more people using Google, and more people using Google means more people clicking on our ads, which will be good for our bottom line,’ she said.

-- Jim Puzzanghera


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