- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Google Inc. is appealing directly to consumers in its bid to persuade federal media regulators to open up vacant slices of television spectrum to broadband devices, bringing about what the Internet-search giant describes as “Wi-Fi 2.0.”

The Mountain View, Calif., company Monday introduced “Free the Airwaves,” a Web site encouraging the public to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to allow high-speed wireless devices to operate in the “white spaces” - the empty spectrum between broadcast-TV channels. Additional channels will free up when the nation switches from analog to digital TV signals in February.

Google is perhaps the highest-profile among a number of technology giants and consumer groups calling for FCC approval of a such a measure, which proponents say will herald a new era of wireless innovation, lower prices and the increased rollout of high-speed access to rural areas. Opponents, including broadcasters and microphone companies, warn that devices would interfere with existing signals.

The Google campaign is the first attempt to extend the highly technical debate away from lobbyists and policy analysts to everyday Internet users.

“Until now, the white-space issue has been largely confined to the Beltway crowd. Most people simply don’t think about wireless spectrum very often,” said Minnie Ingersoll, a product manager for Google’s alternative access team.

The airwaves “could be used to blanket the country with high-speed wireless access,” she said, adding that manufacturers are “really champing at the bit to begin development of these devices as soon as the rules get written.”

Google is upfront about its obvious financial stake in increasing the number of broadband users, though the spectrum would be available on an “unlicensed” basis, meaning that no one company would have the rights to it, as they do with Wi-Fi. FreetheAirwaves.com invites users to submit opinions on the topic via YouTube and sign a petition urging the FCC to allow white-space devices.

Critics of opening up the white spaces - led by the National Association of Broadcasters - doubt the efficacy of spectrum-sensing technology that Google and other firms say would prevent interference. After what was largely viewed as a series of unsuccessful FCC laboratory tests, the commission recently held field tests to evaluate whether several prototype devices could detect and avoid existing TV signals and wireless microphones.

After the latest field test at an Aug. 9 Washington Redskins preseason game at FedEx Field, Mark Brunner, a spokesman for Shure Inc., said a prototype was unable to accurately sense wireless-microphone transmissions.

“If these sensing devices cannot be counted on, then the FCC must put them on the bench,” he said.

There is no official word on when the media-regulating agency will rule on the issue, though Google estimates it will be in the “near future.”