Battle for the Airwaves

Article excerpt

Byline: Benjamin Sutherland

The spectrum up for grabs now could ultimately lead to new markets worth more than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Television has always hogged a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, leaving just a few narrow gaps for newer technologies like mobile phones and Internet signals. Now, however, television is slimming down. The European Union and the United States are requiring TV broadcasters to replace analog with digital signals, which occupy less of the spectrum--in some cases a fourth as much. The result is a huge spectrum windfall and a battle over control of these precious "white spaces." The portion of the airwaves being freed up--between microwaves and radio waves--is prime electromagnetic real estate. These frequencies travel far, pass through many buildings and cost little to transmit (which is why early comers like TV broadcasters took them). Who gets the bounty this time? "It's basically a lobbying food fight," says Ed Thomas, former chief engineer at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.

Television broadcasters want to hold onto the white spaces for additional programming and high-definition broadcasts. Computing and Internet companies--including Dell, Google, Microsoft, Motorola and Philips--are pushing for deregulation, which means no one would have to purchase a government license to use the newly available spectrum--and no one could monopolize it, either. "Unlicensed" white spaces would greatly help Internet-service providers blanket large areas with inexpensive wireless Web access. In the United States, the "analog switch-off" deadline is next February. The decision of the U.S. Congress and regulators may influence the numerous European Union legislative and regulatory agencies, which will be ruling over the next couple of years. Lawmakers and government agencies in Britain, Finland, France and Sweden have already begun to tackle the issue.

The stakes are "significant to huge," says Steve Sharkey, head of spectrum policy at communications giant Motorola. When governments worldwide freed up a small portion of "junk" spectrum in the 1990s, innovators used it to develop inexpensive, productivity-boosting (and now ubiquitous) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. The amount of spectrum now up for grabs is much greater--and could be worth many billions of dollars.

White spaces would allow for cheaper and faster mobile Internet service. These frequencies, which are suited for TV signals, would also work well for images and video for the Web and transmit over longer distances than those used by cell phones. The cost of cell-phone calls would drop, because conversations could often be routed through the Internet.

Free white space would result in a proliferation of signals that could "punch a hole" in TV broadcasts, warns Ed Wilson, an executive of the European Broadcasting Union. …