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Third time lucky? Google seeks open access in white spaces

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However, the weaknesses of the Wi-Fi metrozone experiment have highlighted the flaws in using the overcrowded 2.4GHz with WLANs, and so Google and Microsoft are looking to lower frequencies with better propagation qualities, such as TV bands, and to new technologies more optimized for mobile internet use. Whitt said the prototype products being created for the white spaces would be like “Wi-Fi on steroids” (a term previously often applied to WiMAX, whose own function in unlicensed spectrum has been somewhat sidelined of late).

The FCC, particularly the broadly Google-friendly chairman Kevin Martin, seems largely in favor of opening up the white space channels, but only if the broadcast communities’ professed fears of interference can be addressed convincingly – which prototype devices to date have clearly failed to do.

Google itself has been widely rumored to be working on its own white spaces device but, as with the mythical gPhone, its interest is in providing open and would-be universal software platforms for multiple devices, not getting into the handset business.

Whitt clarified this point better than Google has done before in a conference call about the FCC letter, saying the search company had no plans to submit a prototype device, but noting that the white spaces would be a "very nice match" for phones based on its Android open source software platform.

Google also took what is becoming a customary stance when pushing for a change in the US telecoms status quo, pledging financial and technical support for innovators prepared to challenge the incumbents, in this case the broadcasters. It said it would be willing to provide third parties with support to develop technologies that would avoid interference and make the use of white spaces viable – in particular pointing to spectrum sensing or cognitive radio techniques that can provide sophisticated anti-interference.

In practice, the push to develop a viable device architecture, including cognitive radio techniques, has been driven most powerfully by Microsoft, despite its checkered history in handsets, because of its close ties with the internet players coming into the mobile world from the PC arena – and hence working against Google’s challenger for the mobile internet crown, Nokia, notably absent from the White Spaces Coalition.

Windows Mobile has, therefore, been the initial focus of the Coalition’s activities, although Linux is likely to take over that role soon (it is the basis of Android). This week, Microsoft suffered a third rejection, with FCC officials announcing that its prototype handset “unexpectedly shut down" after proving unable to identify licensed broadcasts and avoid interference.

Microsoft will not give up easily though. “Although this is disappointing to us, we have every confidence that the FCC has many avenues available to finish gathering the information it needs to develop final white spaces rules and allow a variety of services and devices to effectively use the white spaces,” said the company in a statement.

Copyright © 2008, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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