Google’s White Space Proposal

Google has issued to the FCC its plan for what it would like to do with the airwaves freed up by the upcoming conversion from analog to digital television, and it’s pretty optimistic. You may recall the 700 MHz auction that decided the fate of licensed spectrum and raised $19.59 billion for federal coffers, but there’s the matter of what to do with the space between the digital TV channels known as white space.

Google, Microsoft, Intel other technology players would like to see an open wireless broadband service, and today the search giant outlined its plans to make this possible. The plan’s essentials include a vision of portable and fixed broadband devices with Android offering a low-cost operating system for such devices. In addition to working in the white spaces, the devices should also work on the “open access” 700MHz spectrum that Verizon purchased. Because building network equipment is a challenge, Google plans to help out third-party device makers at no cost.

To get the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and those operating wireless microphones on board, Google is also proposing a layer of security to ensure that white-space devices will play nicely with existing unlicensed spectrum users. Google has gone one-step further than traditional spectrum sensing technologies, and proposed a “safe-harbor” spectrum area where only microphone and television signals can operate, as well as a beacon for wireless microphones and geo-location to protect broadcast television signals.

That’s pretty generous — and likely a lot further than other white-space proponents are willing to go. Rick Whitt, the telecommunications and media counsel for Google in Washington, said on a conference call this morning that Google’s plan borrows from Motorola’s plans to shield spectrum; but he admits that other interested parties in the White Spaces Coalition or the Wireless Innovation Alliance may have other ideas.

It’s also uncertain if such efforts would placate the NAB and wireless mic camps. The beacons for wireless mics broadcast a signal that essentially shouts,” I’m here, don’t use my spectrum.” The geo-location would check spectrum against a database of other users of that spectrum prior to trying to use it as way of protecting TV broadcasters. The beacon is an add-on product for existing mics and costs about $10.

Much like siblings sharing a bathroom, users of unlicensed spectrum aren’t likely to relent when it comes to Google’s proposals, but it does make Google look reasonable before the FCC, which will hopefully issue rules regarding the white space some time this year.

Once the analog-to-digital TV conversion happens next February, and provided the FCC rules are in place, Whitt said manufacturers can start building and testing their white space devices, getting the end products to the consumers in times for the 2009 holiday shopping season.

I’m doubtful that the FCC rule-making will be complete in time, and I’m also skeptical that the current group of technology companies arguing for this spectrum will continue to present such a unified front as the process continues. Right now they all want to the same thing, but as they get closer to getting it, each will have its own plans for how it wants to build out a network to take advantage of the spectrum.

At that point, the debate over rule-making will devolve into those seeking to build mesh networks arguing for rules that make their lives easier rather than ones that would benefit competitors seeking to build out towers or hybrid networks. Now that’s when it gets interesting.