Tech companies and public interest groups form coalition to expand broadband access

Tech giants and public interest watchdogs joined forces Wednesday in a new coalition to support new portable wireless devices that will utilize underused parts of the spectrum for Internet service.

The Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA) is a new group comprised of IT companies like Google and Hewlett-Packard as well as watchdog groups such as Free Press and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. They have teamed up as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers rules for devices designed to provide broadband access using “white spaces” — unused parts of the spectrum that typically would be occupied by television frequencies.

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“All government is doing is setting the road signs,” said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), speaking at the press conference announcing the alliance. “But the private sector can’t move ahead until the road signs are established.”

IT companies such as Microsoft — a WIA member whose headquarters reach into Inslee’s district — are developing the devices with the promise they will provide superior broadband access. The white spaces occupy prime real estate on the spectrum, and the enhanced access could spur more innovation and broaden Internet availability to more Americans.

But some groups warn that the new devices will interfere with signals broadcast for televisions and wireless microphones, possibly fuzzing or blocking their frequencies altogether. Amid these concerns, the tech industry has found itself in a lobbying battle with national broadcasters and audio manufacturers.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has led the charge at the FCC and on Capitol Hill against the devices. Seventy lawmakers have written to the commission expressing concerns over the use of white spaces for Internet service, according to the group’s count.  

“It is unfortunate Microsoft and Google continue to try to muscle their way through Washington in support of a technology that simply does not work,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s executive vice president of media relations.

NAB is particularly concerned that broadcasters’ planned move to digital television in 2009 could be harmed by the new devices, since they might interfere with signals for high-definition television sets.

But those arguments have not swayed Inslee and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who have already started to gather support for the devices on Capitol Hill.

At the press conference, Inslee praised their potential as a “great untapped mine” for innovation. Blackburn said the devices could help rural areas without Internet access, such as her own district.

“We have many areas in that swath that are underserved,” she said.

In a letter sent Tuesday to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, Inslee, Blackburn and four other lawmakers wrote that his commission has “a unique opportunity” to open up more Internet access through white spaces. The lawmakers asked the FCC to complete a final order in the next few months.

Despite their support of the devices, both Inslee and Blackburn said they do not want the government to favor one side over the other.

“Congress doesn’t want to pick winners or losers,” said Blackburn.

Inslee has already proposed legislation that would require the FCC to issue a final order on the white-spaces devices as well.

While working on the rules, the FCC has also been testing the devices to see whether they will interfere with others’ signals. This past summer, the commission tested two prototypes — one designed by Microsoft, the other by Philips. While Philips’s device fared well, Microsoft’s did not — a result that was seized upon by opponents like NAB. The FCC is conducting additional testing, and both sides of the debate have sought to help out. Audio maker Shure Inc. and Google have contacted the commission over the past few months about testing, according to ex parte records filed with the FCC.

The new alliance shares many of its members with another group that has promoted the white spaces devices, the White Spaces Coalition. But that particular coalition is more focused on representing tech interests on the issue before the FCC, whereas WIA is designed to be a broader effort.

“We are more of a stepped-up effort to talk to the public,” said Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech industry trade group that is another member of the alliance.