Google and the Great White Open Spaces
Published 16:14, 05 January 10
Google is such a large company, and with increasingly large ambitions, that it is often hard keeping tabs on all of its activities. That's particularly the case at the moment, when most of the tech world is understandably focussing on the imminent launch of Google's own Android phone.
But important as these events are, we shouldn't overlook some of the less well-publicised, but nonetheless strategic, moves it is making elsewhere. Perhaps the best example of that can be found in the field of open spectrum.
This crops up in the apparently abtruse world of allocating radio spectrum. Google's public interest goes back two years, when it began pushing for a particular part of the radio spectrum to be freed up:
Remember how, before cable and satellite TV became ubiquitous in our homes, we would have to turn the VHF dial on our old televisions to watch local channels? NBC might have been on channel 3, CBS on 10, and ABC on 17. And between those channels...was static.
Today, the spaces between those channels remain largely unused. But now a consensus is growing that those portions of TV spectrum -- known as "white spaces" -- could be used to expand Internet access through low power personal devices, akin to Wi-Fi. Best of all, new spectrum sensing technologies can ensure that this spectrum could be used for mobile broadband service without interfering one bit with television signals.
Today, Google joined a broad-based coalition of technology companies, public interest and consumer groups, civil rights organizations, think tanks, and higher education groups to launch the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a new group to promote the numerous benefits that the "white spaces" can bring to consumers. The members of the coalition have already helped secure significant political support for our goals from Members of Congress, and we will be working over the next several months to educate more policymakers about the promise of white spaces. And while some have sought recently to politicize this process, we think the FCC should be allowed to conduct its analysis free of political considerations.
Between today's TV channels lies the opportunity for more Americans to enjoy the Internet's rich resources. We'll be working hard to make sure this debate is marked by more clarity, and less static.
Well, Google, got its wish – as it so often does – just over a year ago:
By a vote of 5-0, the FCC formally agreed to open up the "white spaces" spectrum -- the unused airwaves between broadcast TV channels -- for wireless broadband service for the public. This is a clear victory for Internet users and anyone who wants good wireless communications.
At the time, Google also offered some thoughts on what those white space might be used for:
there are a lot of really incredible things that engineers and entrepreneurs can do with this spectrum. We will soon have "Wi-Fi on steroids," since these spectrum signals have much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations resulting in better coverage at lower cost. And it is wonderful that the FCC has adopted the same successful unlicensed model used for Wi-Fi, which has resulted in a projected 1 billion Wi-Fi chips being produced this year. Now that the FCC has set the rules, I'm sure that we'll see similar growth in products to take advantage of this spectrum.
“Wi-Fi on steroids” is a clever marketing encapsulation of what's possible here, but the really key element is the fact that the spectrum is unlicensed: that is, people don't need to ask permission to use it, which means that anyone – companies or hackers – is free to come up with innovative uses of it. Think of it as “net neutrality” for wireless.
After something of a hiatus, Google has now revealed its next move in this area:
It's been a while since we've talked about what's happening with white spaces being freed up for wireless broadband, but today we took another step towards making "Wi-Fi on steroids" a reality for consumers. In a submission to the FCC, we're asking the Commission to designate Google as one of potentially several administrators of a white spaces geolocation database.
When the FCC voted to open the white spaces to unlicensed use in November 2008, it required that such a database be deployed before consumer electronics companies could start selling PCs, smartphones, e-book readers or other devices that used this spectrum. Before sending or receiving data, these devices will be required to connect to the database to determine what frequencies can and can't be used in a particular location. Licensed television and wireless microphone signals will be fully protected from harmful interference.
As Google's submission explains: “A core function of the database is to provide a list of channels available for operation.” The question is, why does Google want to provide it? I think there are two answers.
First, it is keen to speed up wireless Internet access (in the US primarily, but presumably everywhere, ultimately). As its history shows, it views better Internet access as a way for more people to access more of its services, notably those requiring fast throughput (YouTube, for example, or high-quality Internet telephony services). So this latest move is certainly of a piece with that. But I think that there might be an ulterior motive.
Offering the white spaces geolocation database would give Google a huge amount of data about what people are using this “Wi-Fi on steroids” service for. Such market data is something else for which Google seems to have an insatiable appetite. Now, presumably all this data would be suitably anonymised, but there's always the nagging suspicion that it would give Google yet another piece of the digital jigsaw puzzle that represents us online. Which is another good reason to pay close attention to what it is up to in this domain.