Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Google launches white space offensive with new web site

"Think of it as WiFi on steroids," says Phil Gossett, software engineer for Google. "The obvious application for this spectrum is for Internet connectivity, everywhere all the time." Gossett is talking about the potential that unlicensed use of "white space" could offer consumers, and he's talking about it in a YouTube video on Google's new Web site:

The site is clearly an attempt to frame the white space cause in lay person's terms. "Remember that fuzzy static between channels on the old TVs?"'s home page asks. "Today more than three-quarters of those radio airwaves, or 'white space' spectrum are completely unused." Letting consumers tune into that vacant spectrum to send and pick up broadband could spark a "revolution," Google says, fostering "universal wireless Internet."

Made public this morning, Freetheairwaves (.com or .org) also represents Google's bid to lift the debate over unlicensed broadband from the nasty ditch in which it currently wallows. The Federal Communications Commission has just completed a month of tests on unlicensed device applications, especially testing whether they'll interfere with wireless microphones at a Broadway play and a football game. Every one of these demos was followed by press releases from warring industry players who insisted that the latest tryout succeeded or failed—depending on whether they use or make wireless mics, or want to use or make unlicensed broadband applications.

So a goal of the site is to avoid "getting really deep into the weeds" on the technical side of the issue, as Google's Dan Martin put it in an interview with Ars. The FAQ page emphasizes that the technology to prevent interference exists. Beyond that, focuses on unlicensed broadband's potential: making it more available to schools, public safety providers, and rural/low income areas.

Google's dedicated YouTube page includes testimony from Matthew Rantanen, Director of Technology for the Tribal Digital Village, which provides high speed WiFi access to all Native American communities in San Diego County, California, and three tribes in nearby Riverside. The big ISPs, Rantanen says, provide no service to these areas, "so we took it upon ourselves to take advantage of that and go get it ourselves."

But while WiFi is a start, Rantanen explains, it only goes so far in these rural regions: "We need bigger pipe," he says. "White space opens that up. It drops the cost of end-user equipment. It increases the ability of us to broadcast, to not have intermediate repeating towers, to support going through a grove of trees."

Visitors can submit their own YouTube videos to They can sign a petition to the FCC, which may make a decision relatively soon as to whether to allow unlicensed broadband devices.

But while Google doesn't say it in any of's promotional literature, the search engine giant is obviously sensitive to the charge that it's running a phony consumer "astroturf" campaign, and is up front about its objectives in this fight. "There's clearly a business interest for Google in this," Google's Martin told Ars. "Because expanded access to the Internet hopefully means more users using Google. And more users using Google means more people hopefully clicking on the ads."

That said, the company has identified an array of groups and individuals who have various pro-white-space agendas that parallel Google's. Other YouTube videos feature statements from Inez Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Joshua Breitbart of New York City's People's Production House, Tessie Guillermo of Zero Divide, and Columbia University professor Tim Wu.

"We're not pretending to speak for people," Martin says. "But we do think that once Americans learn more about the issue, they'll agree with us."

Copyright crusaders to launch cyber campaign

Critics of the Harper government's proposed changes to the Copyright Act have launched a cyber crusade to fight the controversial bill.

They're using everything from Facebook to YouTube to Wikipedia to blogs to get their message out. They want the government to either scrap or make serious amendments to Bill C-61 when Parliament resumes next month.

At the helm of the digital movement is Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Internet and e-commerce law. In addition to his own blog, Geist runs a Facebook group called Fair Copyright for Canada that boasts 90,000 members.

The group, which was created in December, has become so large that members have created local chapters by city and riding to better organize their efforts. Many of the local groups have also developed wikis -- online encyclopedic web pages -- to keep their members informed.

Geist said more Canadians are getting involved because they recognize how the proposed reforms could affect their daily lives.

"We're talking about more than just copyright here. We're talking about the digital environment," he said. "This legislation represents a real threat to the vibrancy of that online environment."

Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced the bill in June, calling it a "made-in-Canada" solution to online piracy. But critics responded that the bill was a carbon copy of the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

If passed, Bill C-61 would make it illegal to circumvent "digital locks" on CDs and DVDs and impose a $500 fine on anyone caught downloading illegal copies of music or movies.

Geist also launched a video contest on YouTube inviting Canadians to give their thoughts on Bill C-61 in 61 seconds. A panel of five judges, including Ontario Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian, will announce the winner on Sept. 15 -- the day MPs return to the House of Commons.

An Industry Canada spokeswoman said Prentice is interested to see the number of Canadians involved in the online discussions, but it's up to Parliament to study the issue further.

"The activity online proves that a broad range of stakeholders, with varying interests and vantage points, care deeply about this issue," said Stefanie Power, in an email response.

The movement isn't confined to the digital world. The online protests have spurred offline activism.

Kempton Lam, a business consultant from Calgary, used his blog and Facebook to organize a rally outside a breakfast hosted by Prentice last month. Lam said the online discussions have fuelled potential activists.

"There are so many Canadians that have issues will this bill," he said. "And the online forum has helped us get informed, which leads to offline rallies.

"After we meet, members write about what we learned, post videos back on to the blogs and Facebook group."

Members of the online movement are also trying to make their voices heard through letter-writing campaigns and one-on-one meetings with local MPs.

Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal held a town hall meeting last month to discuss the controversial legislation after his office was flooded with letters from concerned constituents.

It's not the first time this digital community has bared its teeth. The Conservative government was slated to introduce the reforms in December but delayed the bill after heavy criticism flooded the blogosphere.

Geist said he is optimistic that the activism will make a difference.

"When you get tens of thousands of Canadians speaking out like this, there's big political risk for any political party who chooses to ignore it," he warned.