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Google’s proposal for opening the spectrum for innovation

On the heels of her splendid explanation of the outcome of the 700MHz auction, Susan Crawford explains Google’s proposal to the FCC for the “white spaces.” Here’s my take on her take. (The NYT also has a useful article.) (Note: All errors in the following are mine. I am in over my head.)

Congress has mandated the end of over-the-air broadcast of analog TV signals. This frees up some spectrum. (Spectrum = frequencies = colors) Actually, it frees up a lot of spectrum: the 700MHz auction was for just 22MHz of frequency, whereas we’re now talking about 300MHz of spectrum. So, what should we do with this newly unbound stretch of public airwaves?

We could slice it up and sell it off to private companies. That’s generally what the FCC does with spectrum. And that made sense back in the 1930s when the FCC was created. Radios were so primitive that broadcasters had to be given untrammeled access to a frequency to avoid “interference” with other broadcasts. So, the FCC sold swaths of spectrum to broadcasters, but, recognizing that spectrum belongs to the public, the FCC also placed some requirements and restrictions on broadcasters.

Radio technology has advanced since the day the Titanic’s signal wasn’t decipherable. Not only are radios better able to tune in to particular frequencies and strip out noise, they are also able to respond dynamically. They can, for example, hop around the spectrum to hold on to a particular broadcast, if the broadcaster changes lanes, so to speak, in order to find a less unoccupied frequency. Not only does this sort of “open spectrum” approach promise far more efficient use of available spectrum — more bandwidth, to put it inaccurately — but it means that the government doesn’t have to decide for us who gets to use the spectrum. (For more on this, see David Reed’s explanation.)

Google has outlined to the FCC how it would use unlicensed white space spectrum. It’s proposing conservative approach that moves cautiously toward open spectrum, providing the FCC with a vision for how the white space spectrum might bring enormous benefits.

Google envisions how wireless devices running the Android operating system — Google’s mobile operating system — might use the white space frequencies. Google points out that such devices could help deliver Net access to rural areas, a sore spot at the FCC since the policy of handing the Internet over to a duopoly has kept the rural and the poor in the dark. (Surprise!) But, as Susan writes:

Google suggests that *all* devices for unlicensed use of the white spaces should be required to receive an “all clear” signal for the particular channel where they wish to operate, by using geolocation, checking a database of licensees in that location, and getting permission in advance.

This would achieve some of the objectives of an open spectrum system, allowing for the dynamic allocation of frequencies. Google suggests that they could use dynamic auctions to assign frequencies for limited times and strengths, adding another element of extrinsic control (as opposed to a fully open spectrum approach that depends on the devices negotiating for the airwaves). Further, Google suggests that some channels be kept unavailable for all but some high-priority, specialized uses.

This is a calm and rational approach that could see an enormous blossoming of innovation. Think about how many devices exist because tiny ranges of spectrum have been left unregulated. Opening a big swath of spectrum is like opening up a big tract of land. Who knows what we’ll build once we have the space? [Tags: ]

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Harold Feld thinks Google conceded too much too soon.

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