North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes – On White Spaces

(Originally published 1 October 2008 in The Amherst Student)

In keeping with Google’s continuous effort to assure the world that it is not the most evil company in history, Google cofounder Larry Page took a trip to Washington D.C. last week. Page addressed a number of lawmakers on a subject that he has taken a personal interest in: the wireless spectrum.

Page’s visit followed a similar meeting conducted earlier this year at which he laid out Google’s reasons for getting involved in the politicized wireless spectrum debates in Washington. Page addressed matters pertaining to the digital divide, citing rural areas as evidence revealing the failures of egalitarian broadband penetration. Thus, Google shared its mission: to bring the Internet to everyone.

Google’s plan to accomplish this goal is the technological equivalent of sticking a 1.5 inch needle in the collective backside of every WiFi network in the United States. Indeed, as Page himself said, it’s “WiFi on steroids.” Utilizing the “white spaces” of America’s wireless spectrum, most of which will be freed up by early next year, Google seeks to expand wireless coverage to previously uncovered areas. These “white spaces” are noisy bits of static found between channels on analog television sets. They are essentially vacant frequencies, resulting from measures taken by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reduce interference between channels. Because analog signals are wide and powerful, they suffer from a great deal of inaccuracy. This means that adjacent channels – five and six, for instance – have a high chance of interfering with each other, causing obvious issues for television viewers. Thus white spaces, static-filled buffer zones, were employed.

All was well and good. The problem, however, is that come next February, these white spaces will be completely useless. By then, all stations broadcasting via analog signals will have converted completely to digital ones, a mandate called the digital television transition. After the switch to more concise digital signals, the white spaces won’t have any actual purpose. By the FCC’s logic, this transition will allow broadcasters to offer clearer transitions via multicasting, and will provide unused frequencies to be used for various emergency-related announcements. Moreover – and this is where Google, Microsoft and Verizon stake their claim – these unused frequencies could be exploited for commercial purposes, inevitably, according to the FCC, aiding consumers.

Thus, in March, the FCC held a wavelength auction, selling off chunks in the 698 MHz to 806 MHz range to the highest bidders, in this case Verizon and AT&T. The more important purchase – the so-called 700 MHz C-Block – went to Verizon. The importance of the C-Block lies in the open-access conditions attached to it, which mandate that its purchaser grant any device that meets the FCC’s standards access to its network. In a phrase, open access. (It should be noted that the auction raised $19.6 billion, all of which was transferred to the U.S. Treasury.)

The curious development was Google’s hand in the situation. While Google lost the bid for the C-Block, the company’s hand in the bidding pushed up the selling price. This in turn bumped the price over that of the reserve price the FCC set, enforcing the open-access mandate. Although Verizon won the auction, Google won the battle it sought to win, albeit more clandestinely: Google essentially won the auction and made Verizon foot the bill for it.

This brings us back to Google’s mission, which is, in this case, to use the remaining white spaces to create a nation-wide, high-speed broadband network. White spaces, for Google, are perfect for the purpose because, unlike WiFi signals, they can travel great distances at low power, passing through walls with great ease. The problem is that some of that white space spectrum is currently being used by wireless electronics like microphones. The danger in opening up the white space spectrum is that microphones might face a constant onslaught of interference as wireless devices search for connections. As a result, wireless microphones are in danger of facing interference-related issues.

Google, of course, is quick to dismiss these claims, as it contends that no wireless device will reach the market without the FCC’s approval. All FCC-approved products are authorized on the basis that they do not cause interference, so Google sees these fears as a non-issue. As a safeguard, Google has also proposed the creation of a geolocation database that could be referenced any time a white-space-enabled device attempted to connect. This would prevent devices from connecting in areas where wireless microphones were being used.

The major problem facing Google and the rest of the Wireless Innovation Alliance is that there are too many vested interests fighting against them. Television broadcasters, microphone manufacturers, and the like have consistently spread a great deal of misinformation about the white space initiative, exaggerating claims about the potential dangers of interference on digital broadcasts.

A basic understanding of the FCC product approval process should satiate any fears of the mass-interference that groups like the American Broadcasters Association are espousing. I find it impossible to disagree with Google and its aims of bringing high-speed wireless Internet access to people who have so far been devoid of it. In a globalized world, where the United States ranks seventeenth in broadband penetration, a few megabytes per second is a lot more significant than it would seem at first glance. Of course, it’s hard not to be cynical considering Google’s obvious interest in broadening Internet access. If Google increases the number of Internet users, don’t they in turn increase the number of people viewing and clicking their Ad-sense advertisements?

Regardless, while ostensible hidden profit ventures somewhat cloud the sincerity of Google’s motives, I can’t help but respect the work that the company and it’s founders are doing to make the Internet as democratic and free as possible. If their efforts pan out, history will no doubt remember Google – evil or not.

(Originally published 1 October 2008 in The Amherst Student)

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