FCC chairman, Page talk 'white spaces'

FCC chairman Kevin Martin and Google co-founder Larry Page talked about using white spaces to stream data wirelessly during a conference.

Silicon Valley is home to a lot of strange bedfellows, whether hard-nosed venture capitalists and Web 2.0 dreamers or bottom-line hardware tycoons and arty device designers. The odd couple on stage Thursday at the Wireless Communications Association International conference on Thursday, one in a blue suit and red power tie and the other in jeans, T-shirt and casual blazer, could stand with the best of them.

Kevin Martin, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and Larry Page, co-founder and president of products at Google, appeared at a packed general session of the wireless broadband convention and later took questions from the media -- and a lot of onlookers -- in a small meeting room.

What brought them together was something critics consider even more incongruous: Wireless data streaming over the so-called "white spaces" of unused spectrum between TV stations. Broadcasters have spent years fighting efforts by Google, Microsoft and others to gain FCC approval for the practice, saying it would interfere with consumers' TV reception and the use of wireless microphones. Page and other supporters say technology can prevent that and open up a valuable new form of high-speed Internet access.

On Tuesday, the FCC approved a set of rules for unlicensed white-space wireless. Though critics have vowed to keep fighting, Martin and Page were optimistic cheerleaders for the initiative two days after the vote.

Answering questions on stage from WCAI President and CEO Fred Campbell, they said open networks and better use of spectrum can help to bring Internet access to more people in the U.S. and abroad.

Page likened white-spaces technology to Wi-Fi, which apparently is the only kind of network his employees use anymore.

"We have Ethernet cables, but they don't even plug them in, because Wi-Fi's so good that there's no point," Page said. The idea is that Wi-Fi's ubiquity has driven its price down over the years, which in turn has made it more ubiquitous. Page thinks radios that use the broadcasting white spaces will follow the same trajectory.

Soon, he expects all phones and laptops to have white-spaces connectivity, and for chips to fall to the current Wi-Fi price of about US$5 each. But in addition, the white-spaces frequencies allow for longer range and fewer base stations, which will make it less expensive to deploy than Wi-Fi, he said. Devices that support the technology may hit the market in as little as 18 months, Page said.

Speaking to reporters afterward, the two men reflected on their relatively recent cooperation. Google, founded in 1998, didn't even have a lobbying office in Washington, D.C., until 2005. Martin, a former lawyer for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign who is sometimes called "Harry Potter" for his wire-rim glasses and boyish looks, sat on a table sipping coffee while the taller Page leaned back drinking bottled water. Martin's rapid-fire delivery contrasted with Page's casual musings.

Google has actually been working on the white-spaces concept for about six years, according to Page. A team of two engineers was the "tiny little pumpkin" that grew into a project big enough to bring one of the company's founders together with the nation's top communications regulator.

"We have a small group who was working on interesting wireless ideas and they got really excited about this, and that's how we got into it," Page said.

Martin and Page have had a meeting of minds partly because of a professed shared interest in opening up wireless networks. In the white-spaces initiative, Google was a key advocate of using geolocation to determine whether a white-spaces device is in a place where it could conflict with other spectrum users, according to Martin. Location information can then be checked against a database of broadcasters and their coverage areas.

"Their involvement in helping us address how we're going to solve some of the interference concerns in the white spaces was critical," Martin said.

But Martin said Google's demands for open-network requirements in the FCC's 700MHz spectrum auctions earlier this year also helped bring about a sea change in the mobile industry, away from "walled gardens" of carrier-provided devices and applications to networks that allow any device and any service. It's a shift Martin said he welcomes.

"Within a relatively short amount of time -- a little over a year -- you've seen a transformation in the direction of wireless," Martin said.

Google was able to exert pressure on the FCC to change the auction rules even though the company didn't actually end up with the winning bid on any licenses.

"We actually owned some 700MHz spectrum for one weekend," Page quipped. "It was a long weekend."

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