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 Monday 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,, aimed at getting the public involved in promoting the use of “white space” 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 a 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 U.S. move to digital broadcasting in February. Also, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to consider the issue and make rules governing the spectrum chunk by the end of the 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 U.S. 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 consume- 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.

Click on the video below to watch Bowen explain his position on the Free the Airwaves campaign.

— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor



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3 thoughts on “MAIN joins Google effort to ‘Free the Airwaves’

  1. Brett B. Reid

    I have been;using the internet since 1996 and have only been able to access it by dialup networking. I don’t live 20 miles from the largest community in maybe 70 square miles. With dialup one cannot download anything,connections and using such are tedious,finding & ordering a product via dialup is a contest. Generally speaking the world is setup for faster connections. Is the internet for the well funded centrally located or the world?

  2. James Wilson

    We live North of Hot Springs, NC.

    Verizon does not provide DSL in the area, just poor quality voice lines that make for a very slow dial up experience.

    Charter doesn’t provide cable service here.

    We can barely sometimes get Verizon Wireless EVDO Internet access with about $1000 worth of antenna on the roof, an amplifier, a cellular data card and a wireless router. This comes and goes and barely works sometimes. We pay Verizon Wireless over $200 per month for voice and data.

    US Cellular has a cell site in Hot Springs that we can pick up, but it uses old 1xRTT technology for Internet access. This is barely as good as dialup and often just stops working. This is also at least $60 per month and a contract with a cell company.

    HughesNet and Wild Blue both offer satellite Internet access, but it’s slow restrictive, and expensive. Customer support from both companies is terrible. Latency is so bad that VPN connections to the office are abysmally slow.

    We don’t have any workable solutions out here. We have a business to run from home that doesn’t pollute (unless we have to drive into town for decent Internet access) and brings money into this rural community. But it does require good Internet access.

    Using the TV spectrum guard bands should work for wireless Internet access. At any rate, we’d rather get our Internet access terrestrially and our TV from satellite.

    These are OUR public airwaves, not the television broadcaster’s. WE want Internet access. Internet access can be used to broadcast TV, but TV is just one way and cannot help us out with Internet access, all it can do is blast programming at us that we don’t even want to watch!

  3. Margaret Williams

    Thanks for covering MAIN’s efforts, Jason. Like the above readers, I can’t get true high-speed internet in my booney neighborhood. Cell-phone towers beam signals overhead; the local phone company says they won’t improve or add service here till the lines fall down; no cable company comes this way; and my Wildblue satellite internet was out two hours yesterday during the rains. I pay almost $80/month for mediocre service, but it beats dial-up. Barely. I’m not sure the white-space idea would provide anything faster, but it’s worth a look.

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