MAIN joins Google effort to ‘Free the Airwaves’

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of a nonprofit Internet-service provider in Western North Carolina, joined search-engine giant Google last week in launching a national campaign advocating the use of vacant TV channels as a new path for cheap, high-speed wireless Internet access.

Google executives announced a new Web site, www.FreetheAirwaves.com, aimed at getting the public involved in promoting the use of “white space”—unused parts of the TV spectrum—for high-speed broadband-Internet access. The Web site encourages people to sign a petition, contact lawmakers and upload YouTube videos favoring the move.

Google, along with other large companies such as HP, Dell and Intel and advocates such as Bowen want to take this spectrum range from licensed use to unlicensed use.

The lack of high-speed broadband-Internet access is a “serious crisis” in rural America, says Bowen, of the Mountain Area Information Network. “If we don’t free the white space now, we may not see a solution for decades.”

The issue’s hot right now because the so-called white space—sections of the spectrum used as buffers between TV stations to be sure they won’t interfere with one another—will be left unused when TV stations across the United States move to digital broadcasting in February 2009. Also, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to consider the issue and make rules governing the spectrum chunk by the end of this year.

The spectrum is attractive because of its ability to allow signals to travel far and penetrate buildings. Supporters of unlicensed access to the spectrum white space see strong, high-speed Internet connectivity that blankets the country. For Bowen, that’s especially key for rural areas in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where, he says, less than a third of rural residents have access to broadband at home.

The advocates also see a surge in new consumer-electronic gadgets aimed at tapping into the TV-station airwaves. Alex Curtis, director of policy and new media at the Washington, D.C.-based group Public Knowledge, expressed hopes that the move could “spur the creativity of innovators.”

Not everyone thinks unlicensed access to the unused TV channels is a good idea. Television broadcasters are afraid the sharing will lead to signal interference. Wireless-microphone companies and their users also oppose the frequency-sharing. The FCC is testing prototypes of wireless devices using the white space, but there hasn’t been a clear indication as to whether they interfere with local broadcast channels.

Google acknowledges that it has a clear business interest in the issue, said Minnie Ingersoll, a member of Google’s Alternative Access Team, who also argues that increased access to the Internet expands social goods, such as improved communication and collaboration, and provides a potential economic boost.

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