Will Google bid to become a White Spaces provider?

Google promises to take its vocal support of white spaces international, but will it play a role in the service?

Google could get left in the dark with white spaces, after it fought so vocally to get white spaces approved. The FCC could grant a five-year monopoly to a white spaces service provider, and Microsoft has already demonstrated its technology in the first public network -- one that was funded by a FCC director's own VC firm.

The FCC earlier this week put out a call for bids for white spaces vendors (PDF). It asked vendors to reveal how they might turn a buck, not just by selling devices, but by charging users fees to access the database that will allow devices to operate on vacant television spectrum. The big question has now become, which vendors will respond and which will want to charge fees for white spaces database services?

Microsoft has been working feverishly on white spaces development, and was one of three vendors that launched the first public white spaces network in October. Meanwhile Google has not public ally demonstrated any technology, although it has been active in database development, a company spokesperson says. Sources close to the company have told me that Google intends to respond, though the official word from Google is that they are still looking over the proposal and haven't decided if they will toss their hat in for a bid or not. They don't have much time. The deadline for bids is January 4.

Even if Google does bid, and offers to host the database for free, Microsoft may still have an advantage, particularly if the FCC opts to grant a monopoly. Worse still, after so much promise, white spaces may be regulated into being an underwhelming option.

In November 2008, the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of white spaces spectrum by unlicensed devices. One of the FCC's requirements was that devices will be required to access a white spaces database which will control which channels the device may access before it can transmit data. This will prevent devices from trying to tap into channels that might cause interference with television broadcasts. Microsoft and Google had both originally advocated embedding detection technology in the devices. These were to discover which TV channels were in use and dynamically avoid them. White spaces spectrum would remain free, like WiFi. Vendors would make money on devices, or by licensing their white spaces technology to other device manufacturers.

But that option didn't prove trustworthy, the FCC concluded, hence the managed database scheme was born. As Bill Ray from The Register writes,

"That puts white space well away from 'Wi-Fi On Steroids', as it was promoted, and firmly in the cheapo-fixed-link business. A company with two nearby offices might use a pair of white space devices to link them up, with at least one of the devices using GPS and an internet connection to decide on a suitable frequency for that specific link."

So maybe we're talking Bluetooth on steroids. Or maybe not even that, since you don't pay a service provider to operate your Bluetooth network. But when the FCC settled on the database method, it also declared that it is A-OK for vendors to charge fees to users for it. The FCC's request for bids issued on Tuesday states:

"The Commission decided in the Second Report and Order to designate one or more database administrators from the private sector to create and operate TV band database(s), which will be a privately owned and operated service. Database administrators may charge fees to register fixed TV band devices and temporary broadcast auxiliary fixed links and to provide lists of available channels to TV band devices."

In this document, however, the FCC said that it hadn't decided whether to make the new fees-based service a monopoly or not.

"Although there appears to be general agreement on the basic functional architecture for TV band database(s) (i.e., a data repository, a data registration process, and a query process), there are a variety of views on whether we should designate one data repository administrator and allow multiple registration and query service providers, have each administrator perform all functions, or some other combination."

Note that one of its requirements for anointing a white spaces database service provider is experience.

"The entity must demonstrate that it possesses sufficient technical expertise to administer a TV band database. It must demonstrate that it has a viable business plan to operate a database for the five-year term set forth in Section 15.715(g) of the rules. To the extent that the proponent will rely on fees from registrations or queries, the proposal should describe the fee collection process."

Although both Google and Microsoft were two of the most vocal advocates of white spaces prior to the FCC approval, since then, Microsoft has been visibly plugging away, and making friends in high FCC places along the way. Microsoft, Dell and Spectrum Bridge launched the first public white spaces network in Claudville, Va. in October. That project was funded by the TDF Foundation. TDF is a venture capital firm specializing in communication projects and its foundation funds public interest types of projects. Paul de Sa who is the FCC's Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis is also on the board of TDF.

Google has been a whole lot less visible, but a Google spokesperson says the company has been working hard on crafting an open architecture for the database technology, "Earlier this year we formed the White Spaces Database Group, and we have been working with other companies and organizations over the past several months to develop technical guidelines for a geolocation database – a necessary step before any consumer devices can come to market." the spokesperson says. "We filed an ex parte at the FCC in September. Naturally this kind of work is less public-facing than our vocal advocacy in the run-up to the FCC's vote last year – but our commitment has never changed. We are also looking at expanding our white spaces advocacy internationally."

Clearly, Google had hoped to head off the idea of a white spaces monopoly, particularly if that monopoly could potentially be granted to someone in Microsoft's camp. Google assembled the White Spaces Data Group in February, and invited Microsoft to participate. The group was comprised of seven companies all told Comsearch, Dell, Google, HP, Microsoft, Motorola, and NeuStar. In the ex parte filed to the FCC, the group included a framework for a white spaces network with multiple service providers (pictured right, click image for original).

Note whose missing from Google's group: Spectrum Bridge, the database company running the white spaces database in in Claudville, Va -- the one using Microsoft and Dell technology and funded by the guy that works at the FCC.

The Google spokesperson also said that if Google is involved in a bid, it would not necessarily center on itself. "Our goal has been to work closely through the White Spaces Database Group and with the FCC to make sure that a geolocation database gets up and running as soon as possible, though we have yet to determine our specific role in ensuring that happens."

Microsoft has made its intentions clear -- Microsoft Research is developing the technology to create white spaces devices. I would anticipate this technology to be licensed to PC makers, Windows Mobile phone makers and used in its own devices, such as Zune, and Xbox.

Given how keen Google is on releasing free stuff (Google Voice, Google Chrome OS, Google DNS), we can take a reasonable guess that if Google does bid for itself, it would not intend to charge fees. The FCC hasn't announced a deadline as to when it will select the service provider(s), but the final round of comments must be completed by February 18, 2010.

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