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 Google.org, 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 Google.org had ever given funding to the think tank.