Google's Page: US Government Should Open up Its Spectrum

The U.S. government should explore ways to conduct real-time auctions of its vast, and often unused, wireless spectrum holdings, with agencies holding spectrum to get the profits from the sales, Google cofounder Larry Page said Thursday.

Page, speaking in Washington, D.C., repeated Google's position that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission should allow unlicensed wireless devices to access unused spectrum held by television stations. But in addition to TV stations opening up their so-called white spaces, Page called for government agencies to do the same thing.

Google suggested the FCC look into allowing winners of the 700MHz spectrum recently sold by the FCC to conduct real-time auctions as a new business model for spectrum ownership. That idea could be expanded to the federal government, with agencies that sell spectrum on a temporary basis potentially raising billions of dollars, Page said during a speech at the New America Foundation, an independent think tank.

If government agencies could conduct real-time auctions on their spectrum, the unused spectrum "doesn't stay wasted," said Page, now Google's president of products. "It's unclear how much demand you'd have. I think you'll have a lot of demand as you free up more spectrum."

At any one time, about 3 percent to 5 percent of wireless spectrum in the U.S. is being used, Page said. Wireless broadband signals in the TV white spaces could travel four times farther than typical Wi-Fi signals, he said.

It's unclear how much wireless spectrum the U.S. government holds, but estimates suggest the government has more spectrum than any private user. More than 30 U.S. government agencies control spectrum, according to New America, but the government doesn't disclose how much spectrum it has or uses.

Page suggested that government agencies using real-time auctions could shut down outside access whenever they needed additional spectrum.

Commercial spectrum holders could also conduct temporary auctions of excess spectrum, added Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the Wireless Future Program at New America. "There's so much more unused and underutilized spectrum," he said. "That's part of what is wrong with what's been the conventional wisdom in Washington -- that there's spectrum scarcity. In fact, what's scarce is government licenses to use the spectrum."

Government agencies have been reluctant to give up or share spectrum, with some agencies citing national security reasons. Google and other tech companies advocating for using the white spaces in the TV spectrum have run into stiff opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and wireless microphone vendors such as Shure.

The NAB has raised concerns about interference with TV signals, and three white-space prototype devices have malfunctioned in tests at the FCC since last July. Shure and other wireless microphone vendors have largely been using the TV spectrum without getting FCC licenses, and they, too, have raised interference concerns. Those same concerns could come up with government-controlled spectrum.

NAB has called white-space devices a technology that's "not ready for prime time." NAB has complained that Google and other tech companies "continue to try to muscle their way through Washington in support of a technology that simply does not work."

An NAB spokesman wasn't immediately available to comment on Page's speech.

But Page said opponents of using the white spaces in the TV spectrum have overblown concerns about interference. It's not difficult to deploy technology that will check for other spectrum users before sending out a signal, he said. The NAB in the past has complained about potential interference from other technologies, including satellite television signals, he said.

"People pay attention to that because they say it, but that doesn't mean it's true," he said. "I don't want people to be misled by [organizations] who have interests in this."

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