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Third time lucky? Google seeks open access in white spaces

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The results of the US 700MHz auction were far from fulfilling Google’s dreams of an open wireless network that would significantly boost unfettered internet usage across the airwaves, and so its own revenues.

The search and advertising leader is not giving up on its quest for spectrum to support the expansion of its business model into wireless, however, and while it has been largely disappointed in 700MHz (though its lobbying will have done something to shift carrier behavior) and in mesh Wi-Fi, it now has its eyes on a new option, the unused ‘white spaces’ in the TV spectrum.

In the aftermath of the 700MHz auction, Google renewed its efforts to have this unused bandwidth made available for license-exempt broadband wireless use – efforts that have so far been frustrated by opposition from the broadcast lobbies and disappointing results from tests of prototype devices (the latest in a series of Microsoft attempts failed this week).

The usual internet suspects are supporting the move to open up the white spaces, which are areas between channels 2 and 51 in the US broadcast TV band (54MHz to 862MHz) that are not allocated to television operators. Microsoft, Philips and Motorola have been prime movers and have submitted prototype devices to the FCC for testing – the main objective being to prove that an unlicensed product can guarantee not to interfere with TV broadcasts. The White Spaces Coalition is a group of technology companies – also including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Earthlink and Samsung – that is campaigning on this front.

However, two Microsoft attempts have failed and so far the FCC has not approved any device, and is also considering an alternative proposal, led by Sprint Nextel and other cellcos, to allocate the spectrum for mobile backhaul. Meanwhile, it faces opposition not only from broadcasters but from the cellular operators, whose representative body the CTIA recently said the white spaces were "worth money" and should not be given away freely, a stance Google denounced as “greedy”.

Though the potential threat to cellcos from Wi-Fi mesh did not really materialize, the operators are well aware that in some scenarios, especially rural, this new spectrum option could put powerful weapons in the hands of disruptive players, with low or zero cost of entry.

Google is trying to regain the momentum in this debate and last week wrote a letter to the FCC reiterating its case that opening the white spaces would promote more universal and affordable internet services and help bridge the US’ gaping broadband divide.

"As Google has pointed out previously, the vast majority of viable spectrum in this country simply goes unused, or else is grossly underutilized," wrote Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media lawyer, in the letter to the FCC (pdf), calling the white spaces a “once in a lifetime opportunity to provide ubiquitous wireless broadband access to all Americans”, as well as enabling “much needed competition to the incumbent broadband service providers”.

While Google is happy to work with mainstream operators to push its applications on to more handsets, it is also keen to expand the market dramatically by supporting new service providers with innovative business models.

This was the aim of the failed plan to acquire a national 700MHz license, which would then have been used to wholesale capacity to smaller providers; but Google seems to have realized that boosting the viability of small and disruptive operators is more practical in unlicensed bands, because of the carriers’ ability to buy up and manage licensed spectrum under the current auction system.

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