Wireless companies ramp up for ‘white spaces’ battle

Major wireless providers have joined the fight against an effort by high-tech companies to convince policy makers to allow unlicensed electronic devices to operate on unused parts of the television spectrum.

Sprint Nextel , T-Mobile and CTIA-The Wireless Association are pressing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require that electronic devices get a license to operate on so-called “white spaces.”

That way, the FCC would be better able to police the spectrum and ensure the devices do not interfere with television signals, they argue in filings with the FCC. But the push could hinder high-tech companies that are developing devices to operate on white spaces as a new pipeline for broadband Internet access.

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“The way we look at it is there is a model that works, and continues to work,” said Paul Garnett, CTIA’s assistant vice president for regulatory affairs. “There is some potential there to use [white spaces] in a licensed way to allow incumbents or new entrants to provide new broadband access.”

CTIA’s proposal would also leave a small portion of white spaces open for the study of unlicensed devices.

Tech companies argue that devices now being tested by the FCC will enable Internet signals to use white spaces without breaching broadcast or other signals like wireless microphones. But requiring licensing could prove to be a regulatory morass, tech lobbyists argue.

“Auctioning and licensing this part of the spectrum is one of the messier ideas out there,” said Brian Peters, a spokesman for the Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA). “It would result in significant regulatory and legal challenges, with a likely chance of litigation.”

The WIA consists of several tech companies that want to use white spaces to expand Internet use.

Peters described white spaces as “Swiss cheese,” because they occur at various points on the spectrum.

Up to this point, the white spaces battle has largely been between tech companies and broadcasters. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has mounted a concerted lobbying campaign against tech’s plans, fearing that the Internet transmissions would damage picture quality on those sets that haven’t switched to digital TV.

White spaces were initially left unused on the analog spectrum to ensure that one channel’s signals would not interfere with another’s.

But the switch from analog to digital TV is opening the spectrum to new uses. Wireless providers and tech companies have quarreled before over another segment of the spectrum. The two sides clashed over a separate auction for the right to use the 700 megahertz (MHz) band of the analog spectrum. Verizon and AT&T outbid Google for large parts of the spectrum. Verizon spent $9.6 billion and AT&T $6.6 billion to use parts of the band. Google bid $4.6 billion.

Licensing white spaces could result in another auction that could also generate substantial revenue for the government, lobbyists said.

“There is an obvious demand for licensed spectrum,” said Garnett. Many companies would be interested in bidding on it as well.  

“A lot of small wireless companies were left out [of the 700 MHz auction]. White spaces is a solution for them,” said Blair Levin, a Wall Street analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

Levin said wireless companies waited to marshal their forces for the white spaces fight until after the 700 MHz auction was completed.

“No use of political capital on a policy before its time. Now is the time,” said Levin.

White space devices could be competitive with cell phones by providing mobile Internet access. It is a huge market: more than 255 million wireless users as of December 2007, according to a recent CTIA survey.

“Say someone has a 2 percent chance of being a big competitor. You will not be too upset about that, but you don’t want it either,” said Levin.   

The FCC is still testing portable white space devices submitted by companies like Motorola and Philips. In gathering information on the devices, the FCC wants to make sure they do not interfere with other signals, according to Robert Kenny, a spokesman for the commission.

The FCC expects to announce a schedule for field-testing in the near future once the lab tests are completed.

Tech companies have been having problems of late with their white space devices. Microsoft withdrew its prototype after the device performed poorly in three tests.