Turning White Space into Wireless

Some companies want to use leftover parts of the TV broadcast spectrum to create inexpensive wireless service. Such a move could be dangerous, critics say.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Gosh, don't we have enough TV channels. I mean, I lose track after, say, number 207.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I actually remember when my TV didn't go past channel 13.

BRAND: I know. Well, guess what? There are more - even more unused channels out there. It's called white space. And, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, lots of tech companies and TV broadcasters, they're fighting over them.

LAURA SYDELL: Flip through the channels on a TV using old fashioned rabbit ears.

(Soundbite of static)

Mr. SASCHA MEINRATH (Research Director, Wireless Future program, The New America Foundation): You'll notice that it might go, you know, channel three, channel eight, channel 13. Well, all those spaces in between those channels that actually have reception are empty.

SYDELL: Those empty channels are white space, says Sascha Meinrath of The New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank.

Mr. MEINRATH: And what we want to do is reuse those empty stations, those empty spaces, for broadband communications.

SYDELL: Such as cell phones, laptops, PDAs, and, when television goes digital in 2009, there will be even more white space available. The really big tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft, HP, and Dell, all want to use it.

Rick Whitt, Washington, D.C. counsel for Google, says white space could help connect rural areas where commercial companies like Comcast and Verizon don't have a financial incentive to set up networks.

Mr. RICK WHITT (Washington D.C. Counsel for Google): You move out into the rural areas, where you'd think, well, I don't have much broadband access here. In fact, quite the reverse. With white space, you could have almost unlimited broadband access given the amount of spectrum available.

SYDELL: Whitt says local municipalities and small companies could use white space to set up their own networks. Urban areas don't have as much white space, but there might be enough to create free municipal networks. Whitt believes that phones could be developed that might save consumers money.

Mr. WHITT: So, you may be walking down the street, and maybe there's no white space available there, but you could use WiFi. So it shifts to WiFi because that's the cheapest option. But you turn the corner, and suddenly there is white space spectrum available. And, of course, it's free at that point, and you can shift to that.

SYDELL: It sounds like a nice vision of the future, right? Well, not to everyone. Television broadcasters believe that, if phones and PDAs are allowed to use white space, it could interrupt their signals.

Recently, the National Association of Broadcasters aired a commercial in Washington, D.C. to try and persuade the FCC not to allow open use of white space. In it, an older woman is trying to watch her favorite programs.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: But if some high tech companies like Microsoft get their way, your picture could freeze and become unwatchable...

SYDELL: It isn't just television broadcasters who are raising red flags. Take Cirque du Soleil, the artsy circus show where acrobats jump from sets and trapezes high in the air. The performers know it's safe to jump when they get stage directions on their wireless headsets.

Mark Dennis runs the audio system for Cirque du Soleil's show KA in Las Vegas. He worries about what might happen if someone in the audience is using a cell phone connected with white space. It might interfere with the performer's wireless headset.

Mr. MARK DENNIS (Sound Engineer, Cirque du Soleil): If somebody's hanging out there in a vulnerable position, and something goes wrong. And they're going to make a move, and we can't get to them to tell them don't do it, that could be very dangerous.

SYDELL: No one is using white space right now. Motorola and Philips are trying to come up with technology that uses white space but doesn't interfere with television or wireless mikes. Right now, the FCC is testing them. Broadcasters are doubtful that it is possible to make such a device, but tech companies say they have successfully made all kinds of complicated technologies, they think they can master this one.

The FCC won't release the test results for several months, then it will decide if white space will be used for wireless or left blank. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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