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TV giants lock horns with Microsoft and Google over white space wireless play

'God made those airwaves for us'

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The heads of America's four largest television networks have joined forces to oppose a plan that would stream high-speed internet access over unused TV airwaves. And in doing so, they're taking aim at one of the great oddities of the modern tech industry: a partnership between Google and Microsoft.

A coalition of big-name tech companies - including Dell, HP, Intel, and Philips as well as Google and Microsoft - is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow the use of personal computing devices that transmit data over the country's television "white spaces" - portions of the TV spectrum that aren't used for broadcasting.

Local TV stations have already launched a public attack on the plan, claiming that white space devices will interfere with their signals, and now, the nationwide television networks that piggy-back on these stations are joining the fray.

This week, Broadcasting & Cable reports, the big wigs who control ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, urging him to slap down Google, Microsoft, and the rest of the White Spaces Coalition. They even went so far as to say that white space devices will scar the American airwaves forever.

"As leaders in television broadcasting," wrote Walt Disney's Robert Iger, CBS's Leslie Moonves, News Corp.'s Peter Cherin, and NBC Universal's Jeffery Zucker, "we are writing to express our concern over placing personal and portable unlicensed devices in the digital television band. As you know, current proposals based on 'sensing' to avoid interference could cause permanent damage to over-the-air digital television reception."

Ed Thomas, a former FCC chief engineer who represents the White Spaces Coalition, calls this nothing more than "a scare campaign." "It lacks a scientific base," he told The Reg. "What they're trying to do is create a political environment where science doesn't prevail, and I think that's appalling."

Better than WiFi

Think of the white space proposal as WiFi on some serious steroids. Like WiFi, the technology would use unlicensed airwaves, so any company and any individual could buy devices off-the-shelf and grab some wireless bandwidth.

But the spectrum in question affords better propagation than WiFi, and the coalition's system would leverage mesh networking principles to cover even wider areas. In essence, internet access from one network gateway could be bounced from house to house to house.

"These devices could be used for distributing data inside the home, but they could also be used for broadband internet access, especially in rural areas," said Thomas, who represents the White Spaces Coalition through the DC law firm Harris, Wiltshire, and Grannis.

Plus, this technology would provide much higher speeds than WiFi. "If you want to pipe digital movies and high-fidelity music around your home, the odds are high that speeds would be close to 100Mbps with this technology," Thomas said, "though if you're grabbing broadband access from two or three or four miles away, sharing it with others in your area, the odds are speeds will be a bit lower."

The rub is that TV white spaces are at different frequencies in different geographical locations. In New York, for instance, channel 4 is used by a TV station and channel 6 is white space. But in Connecticut, channel 4 is a white space and channel 6 is used for TV.

Devices must be smart enough to automatically detect where the white spaces are before they start transmitting. "You have to know where the TV guys are," Thomas explained. "There are many, many constraints on what you can do, because you have to avoid interference."

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