Battle For The Airwaves

Television has always hogged a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, leaving just a few narrow gaps for newer technologies like mobile phones and Internet signals. Now, however, television is slimming down. The European Union and the United States are requiring TV broadcasters to replace analog with digital signals, which occupy less of the spectrum—in some cases a fourth as much. The result is a huge spectrum windfall and a battle over control of these precious "white spaces." The portion of the airwaves being freed up—between microwaves and radio waves—is prime electromagnetic real estate. These frequencies travel far, pass through many buildings and cost little to transmit (which is why early comers like TV broadcasters took them). Who gets the bounty this time? "It's basically a lobbying food fight," says Ed Thomas, former chief engineer at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.

Television broadcasters want to hold onto the white spaces for additional programming and high-definition broadcasts. Computing and Internet companies—including Dell, Google, Microsoft, Motorola and Philips—are pushing for deregulation, which means no one would have to purchase a government license to use the newly available spectrum—and no one could monopolize it, either. "Unlicensed" white spaces would greatly help Internet-service providers blanket large areas with inexpensive wireless Web access. In the United States, the "analog switch-off" deadline is next February. The decision of the U.S. Congress and regulators may influence the numerous European Union legislative and regulatory agencies, which will be ruling over the next couple of years. Lawmakers and government agencies in Britain, Finland, France and Sweden have already begun to tackle the issue.

The stakes are "significant to huge," says Steve Sharkey, head of spectrum policy at communications giant Motorola. When governments worldwide freed up a small portion of "junk" spectrum in the 1990s, innovators used it to develop inexpensive, productivity-boosting (and now ubiquitous) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. The amount of spectrum now up for grabs is much greater—and could be worth many billions of dollars.

White spaces would allow for cheaper and faster mobile Internet service. These frequencies, which are suited for TV signals, would also work well for images and video for the Web and transmit over longer distances than those used by cell phones. The cost of cell-phone calls would drop, because conversations could often be routed through the Internet.

Free white space would result in a proliferation of signals that could "punch a hole" in TV broadcasts, warns Ed Wilson, an executive of the European Broadcasting Union. Mobile carriers say that technology will soon be available to solve that problem. Members of the Wireless Innovation Alliance, an industry group, are developing "spectrum-sensing" technology so devices can rapidly switch frequencies to avoid interfering with those already occupied. Test devices from Microsoft, Motorola and Philips have failed FCC tests, but technologists think the kinks will be worked out by the end of the year.

Many mobile telecoms want the white spaces to be licensed, so they can buy them and shut out newcomer competitors that would likely offer cheaper wireless Internet—as well as cheaper cell-phone calls. (In March, Verizon, AT&T and a half dozen other mobile telecoms spent more than $19 billion in an FCC auction of a limited portion of the white spaces.) Locking up white spaces among broadcasters and telecoms would slow development of the Internet and related wireless services, which are powerful forces behind innovation and economic growth, says Martin Cave, a spectrum-policy expert at Warwick Business School in London. Instead, he advocates making white spaces freely available across the board.

Broadcasters, however, are politically powerful, especially in Europe. They have argued, with some success, that TV should be favored because it is a public service. Britain, France and Germany are strongly leaning toward allocating white spaces to TV, and Cave thinks the incoming Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi, who has television holdings, will also favor the broadcasting lobby. Politicians also worry that if white spaces are deregulated, voters will resent having to pay cable or satellite companies to receive high-definition TV. Do politicians also fear poor treatment on the evening news by disgruntled TV stations? "Yes, that's it, essentially," Cave says.

Experts say white-space deregulation is much more likely in the United States, which has large rural areas, a big computing and Internet industry and faith in the benefits of less regulation. Bruno Lenain, head of Internet and telecom surveys at Ipsos, a Paris research firm, says statistics show that consumers, especially younger ones, increasingly prefer cheap wireless Internet access over increased offerings on TV—both TV channels and high-definition images. Many broadcasters, back in television's heyday, expressed misgivings about the advent of FM radio, cable TV and VCRs for fear of competition. The broadcasters' opponents are hoping the spectrum masters will keep that track record in mind when looking for the big picture.