In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.
For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .
All these things have been proposed by folks before, but Google is the first of the major tech supporters of white spaces to break ranks and propose such additional protections besides sensing. (“Sensing” means detecting an active microphone or active DTV channel.) Indeed, as Microsoft points out in its own filing, the problem at the moment is that white spaces prototypes are too sensitive and are getting false positives, rather than not sensitive enough. As a test of whether sensing can detect and protect microphones, it would seem that the existing prototypes have clearly demonstrated they can. (I shall have more on the efforts of NAB and others to keep moving the goal posts to ensure that the prototype testing always “fails” in a subsequent post.)
I understand the concern Google has of getting on wireless systems, particularly given its failure to win any licenses in the 700 MHz auction. But experience tells me that concessions to the broadcasters and their allies in the testing stage have an unfortunate tendency to backfire. Google’s offer of “enhanced protection” in an effort to get the issue off the table will, inevitably, be spun by white spaces opponents as more proof that the technology does not work. Further, I fear that rather than accept Google’s offer as overly protective, it will become the new floor at the FCC and the basis for demands for even more needless (and costly) “protections.”
Keep in mind that the enhanced spectrum protection Google proposes has significant costs. Requiring mobile devices to rely on beacons that give permission limits peer-2-peer and creates problems in situations where infrasturture may be destroyed (such as after a Katrina or Rita-type hurricane). From the perspective of those of us that work with Community Wireless Networks and want to see broadband deployed by the poorest communities, any increase in cost is problematic and should be justified by rigorous engineering analysis — or at least a political compromise that will stick. So while I supported these rules in the context of the 3650-3700 Band, I do not think they are needed here from an engineering perspective and I do not think this concessision buys much from a political perspective.
Mind you, I continue to maintain that the matter of wireless microphones is a legal red herring because the FCC found in its 2004 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that WSDs will not interfere with wireless microphones. It has never reversed that determination, so the idea that WSDs “fail” testing by not protecting devices they are not designed to protect (based on the FCC’s own analysis) is rather ridiculous. But I recognize that such an answer has no currency in the face of broadway theater groups and megachurches (all of whom use the wireless microphone service in direct violation of the FCC’s Part 74 restrictions). I could support Google’s play if I thought it moved the ball forward. Indeed, now that they have made the concession, I hope it will move the ball forward. Perhaps Google has lined up some Hill support to say to the wireless microphone guys “well, why doesn’t this solve your problem?” If that happens, or if this gives sufficient political cover to the Commissioners to vote against the interests of the broadcasters and the wireless microphone constituency, then its a price worth paying.
But I fear Google — in a panic over bad testing and finding itself at the mercy of Verizon in the licensed world — has conceded too much too soon. It therefore falls on those of us who are not industry players such as New America, Public Knowledge, Free Press, my own employer Media Access Project, and anyone else who cares about opening the white spaces on terms that benefit us all, to carry on the struggle. Another lesson in why citizen movements are citizen driven, and why we don’t let any corporation — even one that promises not to be evil — speak for us.
Stay tuned . . . .