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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s Incredible Silicon Valley Wi-Fi Adventure

SAN JOSE, November 6 – It was Kevin Martin’s day to suck up praise from Silicon Valley. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission – for about two more months – came to the Wireless Communications Association’s annual conference here on Thursday to be feted by many Googlers, including company co-founder Larry Page.

Drew Clark



SAN JOSE, November 6 – It was Kevin Martin’s day to suck up praise from Silicon Valley.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission – for about two more months – came to the Wireless Communications Association’s annual conference here on Thursday to be feted by many Googlers, including company co-founder Larry Page.

Google had billions of dollars’ worth of reasons to be thankful to Martin. In a hat-trick of decisions on Election Day, Martin shephered a Google-led initiative to make use of the vacant “white spaces” on the television dial through the political shoals of the traditionally broadcaster-friendly FCC.

Also on Tuesday, the agency’s five commissioners unanimously voted to approve the merger of Clearwire and Sprint Nextel, aided by investment from – you guessed it – Google (plus Intel, Bright House Networks, Comcast and Time Warner).

The clean merger of the old Clearwire and the wireless carrier Sprint Nextel took a rocket docket through the FCC. It required no divestiture of assets, as is generally par for the course. Announced on May 7, the merger was approved on November 4, or 181 days later.

By contrast, Comcast and Time Warner had to cool their heels for 404 days before they could accept a condition-riddled division of the assets of failed cable operators Adelphia, in July 2006.

Even AT&T, which once seemed like the favored son of the Martin FCC, was forced to wait 269 days before it could consummate its relations with BellSouth, and 273 days for the merger of SBC Communications and the old AT&T.

In the third significant decision at Tuesday’s FCC meeting, Verizon Communications got the blessing to gobble up wireless competitor Alltel – a merger announced on June 5 – but Verizon had to “voluntarily divest” itself of spectrum assets in 100 markets.

The wireless association’s conference here on Thursday was a celebration of all things Google-ish, with a keynote by Larry Page, a joint press conference by Page and Martin, and a VIP-only reception hosted by Google, TechNet and the wireless association.

In his keynote, Page got right to the point. “I really want to applaud the chairman and the FCC for doing the right thing, and one of the most important things that they can do and that happened in technology in a long time,” he said, speaking about the white spaces decision.

On Tuesday, the FCC approved an order by its Office of Engineering and Technology – powerfully pushed by Google and a collection of other high-tech companies including Microsoft, Motorola, Phillips and others – to allow wireless devices to transmit internet signals in the radio-frequencies unused by television stations.

Each city has dozens of such vacant channels. In San Jose, 26 of the 49 stations between channels 2 and 51 are occupied by broadcasters, leaving 23 potentially available for transmitting broadband, Wi-Fi style, according the Media Tracker of the Center for Public Integrity.

Google’s Page wasn’t clear on any company plans to flood the market with devices that that can take advantage of all those vacant broadcast channels. Nor was he clear – other than the fact that he was very, very excited – on how or whether the company would leverage its spectrum investment in the new Clearwire with its work on Wi-Fi.

“We are an investor in the Clearwire thing, so we are excited about that,” Page said. “They have tremendous [spectrum holdings]. We are absolutely excited about devices that use that spectrum.”

But Page did suggest that the accidental success of Wi-Fi would likely set the stage for a new flowering of white spaces devices.

“We use Wi-Fi all the time to connect to the Internet,” Page said.  “At Google, everyone is connecting to laptops. We have Ethernet cables, but we don’t even plug them in, because the Wi-Fi is so good.”

In his speech, Page called Wi-Fi – which utilizes spectrum in the 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) range – a fortunate accident. He called it “bad spectrum that was useless, and so it was put in this unlicensed regime. Wi-Fi came along, and great engineers got a hold of it, and it is basically used for all of our internet connections.”

Kevin Martin chimed in. He pointed out that “wireless microphones are not licensed” and that “many did not go through certification, the way they were originally supposed to.”

The fact that wireless microphones are able to operate without disrupting broadcast television demonstrated, Martin said, the validity of the Silicon Valley argument in favor of opening the broadcast band up for experimentation and innovation.

The propagation characteristics of 2.4 GHz spectrum aren’t great. “Wi-Fi goes through two walls and then it stops,” Page said. The white spaces between channels 2 and 51, by contrast, operate in relatively low frequencies, from 54 Megahertz (MHz) to 698 MHz.

These lower frequencies will allow for cheaper deployment than Wi-Fi, and “a new wireless broadband alternative that reaches millions,” according to Google’s “White Spaces: Access for the Future” document bandied about the conference here.

The Google report cites an analysis prepared by the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Program showing that the amount of vacant white spaces after the DTV transition varies from 82 percent of the broadcast band in less-populated markets like Fargo, North Dakota, to 30 percent of the band in densely-populated Trenton, New Jersey.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is Chairman of the New America Foundation, and the think tank has received donations from Schmidt, but not from Google or, the search giant's non-profit affiliate.

What plans does Google have for all of this new white spaces spectrum? In a separate presentation at a companion conference here sponsored jointly by the FCC and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Daniel Conrad of Google’s strategic partnership division said, “Getting to this spectrum, which is unused, allows you to hit great range [that] allows you to even get indoors with your network.”

Conrad noted that Google, which operates a public Wi-Fi network in its home city of Mountain View, Calif., can’t use the network inside buildings.

“Not that Google has some grand master plan for what will happen with this spectrum,” said Conrad. “We are happy to see the support of the [FCC] to open it up and to allow anyone to bring whatever business model they want to this space” – provided, of course, that that business model calls for an unlicensed use of the frequencies.

Martin, for his part, said he decided to act now on white spaces because the transition to digital television was nearly complete. “There were two things that were important in my thinking,” Martin said in the joint press conference with Google’s Page. “Utilizing the white spaces prior to the DTV transition, because you were going to be moving the broadcasters around, was going to affect consumers.”

Martin also said that that he was confident that white spaces devices submitted by technology companies met technical requirements for non-interference with broadcast television.

The Martin-feting continued all day. At the Google-TechNet cocktail hour, Google Vice President Doug Garland told him, “We have been so appreciative of your leadership in so many ways.”

Martin, his days at the FCC clearly numbered, sounded relieved to get outside the Beltway. “It is helpful for us to come out to Silicon Valley and get an appreciation” for innovation.


Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly reported that the New America Foundation had received funding from Google. New America Foundation Vice President Michael Calabrese said that neither Google nor had ever given funding to the think tank.

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  1. Avatar

    J.H. Snider

    November 10, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Where did you get your information about where the New America Foundation actually gets its money? No source is provided for your claims.

    The New America Foundation is not legally required to disclose that information, and in recent years has considered its sources of revenue to be proprietary information. Note that direct monetary contributions to the New America Foundation are only one type of compensation. There are also many other types of valuable resources a company can provide to think tank personnel, including, in the case of the New America Foundation, undisclosed direct payments to program directors (bypassing the New America Foundation itself), in-kind payments, and various types of door openings that can be cashed in for credibility with funders. Note, too, that the New America Foundation does not have a written ethics policy prohibiting such indirect monetary contributions. None of this should imply that the New America Foundation doesn’t have brilliant, idealistic policy advocates pursuing worthy ends. All I am saying is that when reporters lack evidence for a particular important claim–and claims about sources of think tank funding are very important claims–they should either avoid making the claim or carefully note the source of the claim and the inability to verify it.

  2. Avatar

    J.H. Snider

    November 16, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    By ignoring the substance of my comment in his reply, Mr. Calabrese actually confirms my point.

  3. Drew Clark

    Drew Clark

    November 17, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    For the sake of clarity, I just wanted to lay out the chronology here:

    This story was posted on Friday, November 7, at 8:29 a.m. After being contacted by Michael Calabrese, the story was corrected, and the above correction posted, on Saturday, November 8. J.H. Snider left his first comment above on Monday, November 10, at 12:19 a.m.

  4. Avatar

    J.H. Snider

    November 18, 2008 at 10:52 am

    There is an error here. The editor’s note reports: “The original version of this article incorrectly reported that the New America Foundation had received funding from Google.” That is incorrect: only the “revised” version in response to my comment made such a claim. That “revised” version is edited out and I don’t even know what it said. What I do know is that by ignoring the substance of my comment in his reply, Mr. Calabrese actually confirms my point.

    Mr. Calabrese did apparently ackwnowledge for this revision of the revision that Eric Schmidt was a New America funder. But there is a difference between being a $1,000 and a $1 million funder (Schmidt is a $1 million funder). The author doesn’t note the amount of funding. Note that corporate PACs are also not funded directly by corporations or their non-profit arms. Mr. Calabrese also doesn’t explain how over the summer his program’s web page listed as one of its employees a “Google Scholar.” Presumably Google paid for this scholar directly rather than via the New America Foundation. But this is a distinction without a difference. Does Mr. Calabrese acknowledge that other New America employees/fellows have also received direct Google funding? The same principle of disclosure should apply and would apply at a major news organization.

    Nor does Mr. Calabrese acknowledge that he has personally received funding directly from Google, again bypassing the corporate entity.

    None of this should imply that getting direct or indirect money from Google is a terrible thing when in pursuit of a worthy cause. Nothing could be more banal than a think tank receiving corporate support; that’s how the world works. But implying that there are not binding connnections when there obviously are–does anyone think that Mr. Calabrese would act contrary to Google’s corporate interests without some very intense soul searching?–is misleading and poor reporting.

  5. Avatar

    J.H. Snider

    November 18, 2008 at 11:13 am

    I have just seen Drew Clark’s November 7 comment. The November 8 correction to which he refers was not actually posted on the website when I read and replied to the article, which this website says was on November 10. Note also that I emailed Mr. Clark before the comment was posted.

    Lastly, a technical note: it’s confusing submitting a comment on this website because there is no immediate feedback or feedback of any kind. After the submit comment is hit, it is like the comment has been lost into the ether.

  6. Pingback: LexDigerati :: Glenn B. Manishin, Esq. » Regulators In the Valley

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