High-Stakes Race to Unlock a Wider Web

Critics Say New Technology May Hinder TV Signals

FCC tests new white space devices at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, that tech companies are hoping to use to tap into unlicensed airwaves, which could provide wireless Internet service.Video by Kim Hart/The Washington Post
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

The nation's top technology companies have spent millions of dollars and nearly two years building devices, poring over laptops and working in federal labs trying to come up with a new way of providing high-speed Internet to bandwidth-hungry cities as well as hard-to-reach rural regions.

Last week, the companies moved from lab to field.

Engineers from the technology heavyweights, including Motorola and Philips, lugged their laptops, antennas and other equipment to parks, homes and high-rises around the Washington area, hoping to prove to the Federal Communications Commission that the unlicensed airwaves between television stations, known as white spaces, could provide a new form of mobile Internet service.

Using white spaces "will provide a way to provide broadband across long distances at much faster speeds than cellphone networks and WiFi," said Jake Ward, spokesman for the Wireless Innovation Alliance, which includes Google, Microsoft, HP and Dell. The group is trying to convince regulators that using the airwaves will provide broadband to rural schools, beam high-definition online video to low-income households and let consumers stream music while sitting in highway traffic.

First out of the gate was a team from Motorola. On a recent steamy day in the middle of Patapsco Valley State Park about 10 miles west of Baltimore, Dave Gurney, an engineer for the company, set up shop in a parking lot surrounded by dense forest.

A large black box the size of a suitcase hooked up to a laptop sat near the base of a tree-covered hill. An antenna perched on a tripod rested a few feet away. A group of engineers stared intently at the contraption, as if it were about to spring to life.

"It's done!" Gurney said. He held his breath as the men leaned in further and quickly jotted down a cryptic list of numbers. Then he ran the test again.

The stakes are high for this mysterious black box. Tech giants and Silicon Valley start-ups are betting that using white spaces could extend the Internet's reach. They also hope it will spark a new wave of portable devices.

But the idea faces big hurdles. Broadcasters use adjacent airwaves to beam TV shows to viewers, and they say the technology could interfere with over-the-air signals. Wireless microphone users, from pop stars to mega-church ministers, say using white spaces could blot out their sounds.

White-space backers say their devices will be able to detect and avoid frequencies being used by broadcasters and wireless mics. Critics say the devices are not reliable enough.

The FCC is trying to settle that debate. For more than a year, the agency has been testing prototypes with mixed results. An early prototype built by Microsoft failed to operate in the FCC's lab. Microsoft later determined the device was broken.

The FCC is now testing other prototypes built by Philips and Motorola as well as Silicon Valley start-up Adaptrum and Singapore-based Institute for Infocomm Research. The Motorola device connects to a database of TV stations operating within 200 kilometers and scans the airwaves nearly every second for other signals that may pop up unexpectedly, such as a wireless microphone.

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