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Google’s Gigabit Gambit

Want a gig (1000 megabits per second) of Internet access bandwidth? Google says you could have it by the end of next year “from Manhattan to rural North Dakota (sic, I think they meant Vermont)” if their proposal to the FCC is accepted forthwith according to CNET’s newsblog. Not only a gig but a mobile gig, accessible by cellphone or roaming computer—no fiber required. Sound too good to be true?—it isn’t, IMHO!

Engineering is not the problem (more below). Politics, entrenched interests, and bureaucratic inertia, however, make it unlikely this dream’ll come true as quickly as it ought to despite the fact that America could lead the world in broadband penetration and accessibility within two years if the FCC accedes to the request Google made yesterday to open up “whitespace” for use by broadband devices. Rural areas—most deprived of broadband service to day—would be the biggest beneficiaries; but urban America has plenty to gain as well. Google also has plenty to gain by FCC agreement—nothing wrong with that.

How’s this possible? In short, open spectrum. But I’ll explain.

A huge swath of frequencies is reserved for over the air use. Even after TV stations give up a relatively small amount of spectrum in February of next year by switching to all digital broadcast format, there will still be enough spectrum available for channels 2 through 51 in every market in the United States; there is also unused space between channels which modern technology makes safely usable. In rural areas, as much as 300Mhz of spectrum may be completely unused; even in rural areas there are unused swaths and the space between the channels can now safely be used thanks to modern technology. In the recently completed FCC auction, Verizon promised to pay over $4.7 BILLION dollars for just 22Mhz of spectrum so 300Mhz is a really big deal.

Although this whitespace is nominally reserved for television use, no one has paid for a license to use any of it. It’s fallow, as we say in Vermont. It’s time it was grazed.

Unlike the 22Mhz band which Verizon just bought, the whitespace is a patchwork. Different frequencies are available in different places. Radios, whether in cellphones or attached to computers, which use this spectrum have to either know where they are (trivial with GPS) or have some way to listen to see what frequencies are usable locally and be able to change their frequency as you drive down the road much as you change radio stations to adapt to local conditions. Mobile phones already do this within a narrow range of frequencies; wifi has much of this technology. Google is suggesting that only radios which have passed FCC licensing criteria for safe operation be allowed to operate.

Despite the fact that the radios will be licensed, the operators will not! A cellular operator has to get a license to use a specific frequency from the FCC; a WiFi operator does not. Google calls its proposal WiFi 2.0 for this reason. Google is proposing that these frequencies b made available for UNLICENSED use (albeit with licensed radios). Experience has taught us that much more signal will be crammed into a given swath of spectrum if the spectrum is unlicensed than if it is licensed. (BTW, some smart people disagree on this and point to real instances of wifi congestion. I think this is a consequence of the relatively tiny slivers of junk spectrum wifi shares with microwave and cordless phones and will not be a serious problem in the wide open whitespaces).

Moreover, innovation thrives in unlicensed spectrum. From Google’s letter to the FCC:

“In short, FCC rules should specify only what is allowed, not how that result is to be achieved, or by whom. Much like the Internet itself, the agency’s specifications should as much as possible enable “innovation without permission” (although with necessary technical constraints). For example, the Part 15 rules permitting WiFi were written years before the IEEE 802.11 technology was even contemplated, much less existed. If those rules had been contingent on the pre-existence of WiFi, one of the most successful and efficient uses of spectrum in the history of wireless communications likely never would have happened.”

Google is not asking for any special privilege. However, the availability of open spectrum would not only create a huge opportunity for their proposed Android phone design but also protect them from the threat of the established carriers finding a way to establish toll booths which divert revenue from Google’s coffers to those of the carriers. Because Google has such a large stake in making open spectrum a success, they’re offering help to those who will do the actual implementation:

“Google also would be willing to provide, at no cost to third parties, the technical support necessary to make these plans happen; this could include intellectual property and reference designs for underlying technologies, open geo-databases maintained by Google, and other supporting infrastructure.”

Why won’t this happen?

Remember Verizon just promised to pay $4.7 billion and change for the 22Mhz C block; how much is that 22Mhz worth if huge blocks of unlicensed spectrum with similar propagation characteristics become available around the country? Google made a pass at this spectrum and probably forced the Verizon bid up. Was this rope-a-dope?

Don’t feel too sorry for Verizon though; they cited the upcoming rulemaking on the whitespaces as a reason why the spectrum they bought at auction should be auctioned rather than released for unlicensed use.

Americans pay more for less Internet access bandwidth than people in most developed and many developing nations. These prices will plummet per megabit when over-the-air competition becomes available. Those who benefit from this pricing will not be happy to see the competition—and they have lobbyists.

Cellphone calling costs much more than the price of providing the service. Control of spectrum lets the major carriers keep these prices up. What happens if spectrum is open? There goes another rubber tree plant.

I’ll be speaking at David Isenberg’s always worthwhile F2C conference next Monday morning at 8:30AM. Even though it’s only the day before April Fool’s Day, I’ll be giving a history lesson from a 2018 perspective of how almost all spectrum got unlicensed. The Google proposal is a milestone in that “history”.

By Tom Evslin, Nerd, Author, Inventor

His personal blog ‘Fractals of Change’ is at blog.tomevslin.com.

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