Google takes on the TV industry

August 18, 2008, 9:46 PM UTC

By Yi-Wyn Yen

Google has tussled with everyone from Microsoft to the telcos on Capitol Hill. Now it’s going after television broadcasters and cable companies.

The search king launched its first public advocacy campaign on Monday to encourage consumers to petition the Federal Communications Commission to “free the airwaves.” As the TV industry prepares to switch from analog to digital broadcasting in February, the FCC will decide what happens with the unused radio airwaves. Google wants to to open up the unlicensed airwaves, also known as “white spaces” left vacant by the switch to digital broadcasting.  Google has also lobbied for open-access airwaves for another band of wireless spectrum that the FCC recently auctioned off. The FCC could rule on what it plans to do with the “white spaces” as early as September.

Google (GOOG) is pushing for the FCC to open the unused airwaves to the public. Along with three public interest groups that support unlicensed broadband usage for rural areas and Native Americans, Google has a vested interest in fighting for free wireless spectrum because greater access to Wi-Fi and broadband Internet means more people surfing on Google from anywhere. “Google wants to promote any network that promotes high-speed Internet access,” said Richard Whitt, Google’s telecom and media legal counsel, on a conference call with reporters Monday.

That irks the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful lobbying group that is backed by network TV companies, cable operators and national sports leagues. “This is a smoke and mirrors PR gimmick,” says Dennis Wharton, the NAB’s executive vice president. “Google wants you to think this about supporting broadband access in rural areas. But if they get what they want with handheld devices or whatever application devices, it could cause TV interference on a dramatic level in urban markets.”

The NAB is lobbying the FCC to police the unused airwaves through spectrum auctions. It fears that any device – whether it’s a portable video game console, a smartphone, or your garage door opener – will interfere with the digital TV airwaves and wreak havoc on the TV viewing – and ad-watching – experience. The FCC has been conducting field tests for the past year to see if Wi-Fi-equipped devices that use the white space will interfere with broadcast signals.

Google isn’t the only one fighting for unlicensed airwaves. Last year it joined the Wireless Innovation Alliance and the White Space coalition with other tech heavy hitters like Microsoft (MSFT), Dell (DELL) and HP (HPQ)  to support wireless broadband initiatives. Microsoft spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said in a statement that the company is “pleased to see many grassroots efforts take shape like this one.”

Google’s “Free the Airwaves” campaign is the company’s first attempt to reach the masses. Google’s policy team admits it’s facing an uphill battle since the majority of consumers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about wireless policy. Google has put up 14 YouTube videos from white space advocates on its site in hopes that it will encourage Internet users to e-mail their congressional representative or petition the FCC.

“Google’s done public campaigns for net neutratity and the C-block auction, but they’re taking this to a whole new level,” says Stifel Nicolaus telecom analyst Blair Levin. “From the beginning, this has been a difficult campaign because it requires a lot of technical expertise. Google’s latest move suggests that they need more than technical expertise to win this. They need political support.”