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Free the airwaves, cries Google

FCC to consider petitions, analysis and dancing phones

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Google has launched another round in the PR battle over American white space, with a new website asking visitors to sign a petition to convince the FCC to allow unlicensed use of the spaces between TV channels.

This isn't the first website Google has set up to fight its corner. The Wireless Innovation Alliance was set up to present evidence that making use of the empty spectrum would not interfere with TV broadcasting, but this one looks much more like a grassroots protest than a slick media machine.

Not only are visitors asked to sign the petition, but in proper Web 2.0 style they're invited to upload YouTube videos of themselves expressing how important the issue is to them.

The problem with using the spaces between TV channels is that the available spectrum varies around the country, so devices have to avoid interfering with broadcasters who paid for exclusive access to the frequencies. Most of the demonstrations in this area are based on Detect and Avoid techniques, but those only work if the signal can be detected*, and repeated technical trails have failed to impress so far.

The alternative is to fit devices with GPS or similar, then include a database of frequencies to avoid by area. That would require devices to pick up a GPS signal before starting operation; difficult indoors, and could also lead to white space devices interfering with each other as they each believe the same spectrum is unused.

The current proposal is to use a combination of these techniques to provide the best avoidance possible, though the National Association of Broadcasters is having none of it - it's wheeled out some comedy animated mobile phones to illustrate the point for the hard of thinking.

The unregulated use of white space is a technical issue - either it will interfere with TV or it won't - but the proponents and their opposition have turned it into a political battle. Petitioning the FCC to allow unlicensed use of white space seems insane when the decision should rest on technical trials, not public opinion, but that's not stopping anyone from soliciting public support.

The FCC will vote on the matter in the next few months, hopefully basing their decision on sound technical analysis rather than populist petitions or dancing telephones. ®

*A transmitter behind a hill might be invisible to a white-space device, which will then broadcast on the same frequency and thus interfere with reception at a TV set that has line-of-sight to both.

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