In 1981, the Ramones released a single called We Want the Airwaves, a post-punk call to end corporate control of radio. It was a rebellion that presaged the fall of media gatekeepers of all sorts as the Internet put people in charge of programming their own entertainment.
Now Google wants the airwaves, to end what it sees as an Internet access bottleneck. On Monday, Google, in conjunction with several public interest and industry advocacy groups, launched Free The Airwaves, a campaign to rally support for its plan to open underutilized portions of the television broadcast spectrum for high-speed wireless Internet networking.
Google and its allies -- a group that includes competitors like Microsoft -- argue that opening the unused TV spectrum, called white space, to carry wireless Internet signals is crucial to making Internet access in the U.S. more affordable and more competitive with what's available elsewhere in the world.
"This is one of the crucial issues of our economic future and our information future," explained Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor and advocate of telecommunications policy reform, in a video statement. "'White spaces' is a reform designed to break the bottleneck in spectrum and to make the airwaves available for anyone to use, and to make them come to consumers at a much cheaper price than what you see today."
The National Association of Broadcasters has been vocal in its attempt to derail the tech industry's efforts to open the TV spectrum. When a prototype white space networking device that Microsoft provided to the Federal Communications Commission for testing failed in March, NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton characterized the malfunction as a sign that the technology was problematic. "In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out," he said. "How many strikes does Microsoft get? If they can't get the device to work in the lab, how are they going to get it to work in the real world?"
NAB's position has been that using white spaces for Internet signals will result in TV signal interference and will disrupt wireless microphones used at sporting and live events. Telecom companies like Verizon, which would face competition from white space Internet access, also have expressed skepticism to opening the television spectrum to new uses.
To date, such concerns appear to have a rationale beyond self-preservation. In July, 2007, the FCC's test of two prototype white space devices indicated that the devices caused interference with TV signals and wireless microphones.
The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request to comment on whether improved prototypes have addressed interference issues. But various news reports this month have quoted Motorola executives saying that recent white space device prototype testing has been going well. And Google maintains that the technical issues will be resolved.
That leaves policy issues. Google's aim in its Free The Airwaves campaign is to get Internet users to sign an online petition that will be used to sway the FCC's decision about white spaces later this year. "At Google, we think more open access to the white spaces is essential, not only for companies like ours, but for society in general," the company states on its Free The Airwaves site. "But this outcome is far from certain, so we've joined a broad coalition of public interest groups and industry peers who are working to convince the FCC to free the airwaves and unleash the next generation of Internet innovation."