White light, white heat, white space 

Urban dwellers now take their broadband for granted. Whenever I talk to folks who live near places like Floresville and La Vernia, rural communities not far from SA, I’m reminded to be grateful for my speedy connection. Outside the city limits, one has to go to weird lengths to get a decent signal, including renting a big dish that talks to another big dish far, far away. That ain’t cheap, but it’s actually cheaper and faster than satellite internet.

You may recall a few columns ago, I wrote of my frustration at lacking a Verizon phone signal in much of West Texas. The solution to blanketing America in broadband and phone access may be around the corner. Bear with me: There’s some science coming up, and some strange business happenings, but the results might be spectacular.

In July, Google made public its intent to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s January 2008 auction of the 700 MHz spectrum, the “white space” where the traditional analog TV channels 2 through 51 currently live. Google, in characteristic egalitarian spirit, asked the FCC that the frequencies be reserved for “open access” by wireless devices, a notion in line with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s call for a “truly open broadband network.” And Google tossed out a figure: $4.6 billion (that’s billion with a B). Damn.

Observers speculate that Google is scheming to pit itself against current mobile-phone providers. The term “Google phone” gets batted around a lot, and it’s funny how positive everyone seems to be about the notion of the big G becoming our new mobile master. But who on Earth gets good vibes from Sprint, Verizon, or — sheesh — AT&T?

Notes: Television owners learned a couple years back that those VHF and UHF broadcast channels are going away in 2009, to be replaced by digital TV. Also, the 700 MHz spectrum actually comprises frequencies between 2 MHz and 698 MHz. One can find a complete chart of the radio-frequency (RF) spectrum online — and it’s a yummy chocolate geeksicle, broken down to the third decimal place between the big services, including AM and FM radio, broadcast TV, cellular and cordless phones, and good stuff like “maritime mobile,” “aeronautical radionavigation,” “radio astronomy,” and “earth exploration satellite.” Briefly as I can, however: Each service is assigned exclusive portions of RF, but those portions aren’t continuous. AM, for example, gets 153 to 279 kHz, 520 to 1,610 kHz, and 2.3 to 26.1 MHz. And FM radio actually occupies frequencies between TV channels 6 and 7. (These numbers are specific to the U.S., dontcha know.)

Hours before I started writing this, Sprint released its second-quarter earnings: $19 million, down 90 percent from $291 million the same period last year. Damn. The explanation is that Sprint spent $51 million on their WiMAX initiative.

WiMAX is the intended successor to WiFi, the kind of wireless network that you can set up with a $40 router, getting you a range of 100 or 200 feet, depending on your building’s structure. WiMAX is intended to travel a bit farther, going the “last mile” of network, say from a tower to your home. Similar to DSL, the speed of a WiMAX connection decreases over distance.

Sprint is set to roll out its WiMAX network in 2008. They are partnering with a mobile broadband provider named Clearwire, and with — yup — Google. Clearwire has already received FCC approval for its WiMAX card for laptops, which would provide greater speeds than do mobile broadband cards currently offered by Sprint and its competitors.

Now comes the other possibility for that coveted 700 MHz.

Back in March, a coalition of tech companies, including Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Philips, and — yup — Google, presented a prototype white-space wireless-broadband device to the FCC. (A second prototype was submitted in May.) The Commission will spend the next couple of years testing the technology, checking, among other things, that it doesn’t interfere with TV signals, as digital TV will continue to operate between 54 MHz and 698 MHz.

So here’s science: WiFi operates at 2.4 GHz, which has a limited range and has trouble going through walls. This is why some buildings need more than one wireless router. WiMAX works at 2.5 GHz and above, and again, WiMAX will only get to you a couple of clicks from each tower. (By the way, Sprint collaborator Clearwire purchased the 2.5 GHz spectrum from AT&T in June for $300 million.)

Broadcast TV, however, shows us that 700 MHz signals can span many miles.

Ah-hah! Could this be the beginning of internet phone everywhere? Could we finally get unlimited calling and see the end to those stupid minute-usage plans that are gouging our wallets every month? Will Sarah finally admit that it’s not Jack’s baby? Stay tuned, and rural America, hang on to your downloading hats.

Jonathan Marcus publishes online at themacwhisperer.blogspot.com.


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