For the Next Big Bout, Tune In to Channel 41/2
Only in Washington would major industries spend millions of dollars to fight over, essentially, nothing.
For months now, broadcasters and high-tech firms have battled over what both sides refer to proudly as "white spaces" -- the unused broadcast channels in between the local channels that we watch on television.
Turns out all that emptiness is potentially worth a fortune. All that's required is for regulators to allow companies to utilize those spaces to carry broadband signals so that fancy new devices can take people onto the Internet.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents local TV stations, thinks that's a terrible idea. It contends that the machines tapping into those idle spaces -- at least the devices that are portable -- would interfere with the reception of the digital TV sets that will soon proliferate.
The broadcasters' engineering group, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), has distributed studies showing that TV pictures would freeze and go silent as soon as these devices are unleashed in a neighborhood. The concert industry, news organizations and sports teams are also expressing concern that the new devices would cut off their wireless microphones and cameras.
Not so, say the tech giants that want to expand high-speed Internet connections and sell the white-space devices. Microsoft, Google, Dell, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Philips Electronics and EarthLink have formed the White Spaces Coalition (really, there is such a thing) to lobby lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission to convert the gaps into gold.
They assert that the technology exists to avoid TV interruptions, even when the open channels differ from region to region. Channel 8, for example, might be already spoken for in one place and be available to the Web in the next town.
The coalition has given the FCC strange-looking test devices, created by Microsoft and Philips, which it says will prove that the broadcasters' concerns are overblown. They also say beaming the Internet this way would be so powerful that it could travel through walls and bring vast capacity to underserved regions.
WiFi networks, now sprouting in airports and coffee shops, could get some serious competition from the "super WiFi" provided by TV airwaves. So could satellite providers.
Dozens of lobbyists and executives have been swarming Congress and the FCC to apply as much pressure as they know how. The White Spaces Coalition has the heavier crew and has persuaded Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate to introduce legislation requiring the FCC to promptly issue new rules.
The agency is headed toward a decision in the fall. "It could be gigantic," said Scott Blake Harris, a lawyer for the coalition.
And all over white spaces -- which, by the way, are not actually white; "white implies empty," explained MSTV's David L. Donovan-- except for all that green.