The Federal Communications Commission just moved Google a lot closer to its longtime vision of “free airwaves.” On Wednesday, the FCC revealed it has tapped the search giant to be an administrator of an online database designed to match electronic devices with unlicensed TV spectrum.
The decision could have far-reaching consequences for Google, which has grand ambitions for its mobile business, and for the U.S. wireless market, which is currently dominated by the big four wireless carriers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA.
The spectrum in question is known as “white space” or “white spaces,” because it sits between TV channels. It is often described as “super Wi-Fi” or “Wi-Fi on steroids” because its wavelengths stretch far, penetrating buildings better than regular Wi-Fi. Since the spectrum can be used to provide broadband data for free or at a very low cost, consumers are likely to welcome white spaces as a way to cheaply and easily get online. Companies that sell access to the Internet, such as telecom and cable providers, tend to be less enthusiastic about the technology.
Special devices will need to be developed to run on white space spectrum. Dell and Microsoft, among others, have indicated they want to produce compatible gadgets. Google, which recently declared that all of its 2011 initiatives relate to mobile, will probably commission white space devices that run on its mobile platform, Android.
The databases will enable the devices to get online by routing them to the nearest available unused channel or spectrum. The system will allow gadgets to use wireless broadband without a telecom or cable company as middleman. Since the setup would make mobile browsing much more affordable than it currently is on cellular networks, Google stands to gain from an increased rate of mobile searches. In addition, Google’s administrator role will allow it to closely observe the evolution of this new broadband network and give it leverage regarding white space issues with the FCC and other policy makers.
It’s a goal Google has been working toward for years. The company has been firmly pro-white spaces since 2008. That year, Google co-founder Larry Page traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress and the FCC to open up white space spectrum to companies like Google—and, by extension, consumers. Google also ran a “Free The Airwaves” campaign in 2008 which encouraged the public to support so-called unlicensed use of white spaces. In 2010, Google collaborated with Florida-based Spectrum Bridge to launch an experimental white space network in northern California.
Google appears to still be passionate about white spaces. Companies seeking to be database administrators had to submit written proposals to the FCC outlining how they would build and manage such a system. Google did so sometime in the past year.
The FCC, in turn, seems to have taken Google’s white space-related efforts into account in its decision, which it likely knew would be controversial. In its Jan. 26 order on white space databases, the FCC acknowledged receiving several objections about Google’s qualifications as an administrator.
Two influential TV industry trade groups, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) found fault with all the database applicants, including Google. Google’s proposal, the groups said, “fails to describe in detail how each database function will operate.”
Another industry group, the Coalition of Wireless Microphone Users, also expressed concern with the way Google planned to structure its database.
Key Bridge Global, a Virginia-based technology firm, was the most vocal Google opponent. In a written comment to the FCC, Key Bridge called Google’s administrator proposal (as well as some other applicants’ proposals) “particularly weak”. Key Bridge also argued that Google could unfairly benefit from the information it would collect as an administrator. Citing the likelihood that Google will manufacture devices that utilize white space spectrum (or partner with companies that will make such devices) Key Bridge contended that Google could profit from knowing details such as the make, model and location of competitors’ equipment.
The FCC chose to overlook these protests. In its Jan. 26 order, the agency said it did not consider Google a threat because all administrators would be prohibited from using database information to engage in anti-competitive practices.
Eight companies besides Google will also be database administrators. The group includes Comsearch, Frequency Finder, KB Enterprises and LS Telcom, Key Bridge, Neustar, Spectrum Bridge, Telcordia Technologies and WSdb.
The databases won’t be active for several weeks. The FCC has asked all administrators to submit additional information about their database plans by Feb. 28 and attend a March 10 workshop to go over the agency’s rules. Adminstrators will then undergo a 45-day trial period. If they pass the trial, they will be able to operate their databases for five-year terms.
- FCC Appoints Google As ‘White Space’ Administrator (blogs.forbes.com)
- Finally: Google, nine others to run “white space” databases (arstechnica.com)