A battle between tech companies like Google and broadcasters over use of soon-to-be vacant airwaves will heat up soon as U.S. regulators release an anticipated report on the issue.
The Federal Communications Commission's report will weigh in as early as Friday on the feasibility of opening up "white spaces"--unused pockets of the spectrum to become available when broadcasters move completely to digital television next year--for unlicensed use.
Google, Microsoft and others want the spaces for a new generation of wireless devices. So-called incumbents on the space, including broadcasters and wireless phone companies, oppose unlicensed use, worrying that it would create interference and other technical problems.
High-tech companies "see this as a way to sell more devices and more services," said Harold Feld, senior vice president with the Media Access Project, a consumer group that backs the idea.
"We care about the people who are probably not ever going to buy their high-end devices," he said. "For them, this will bring cheaper broadband to places in rural and inner-city neighborhoods."
The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the big networks like Walt Disney's ABC and General Electric's NBC, fiercely opposes the idea.
All sides have been waiting for an FCC engineering report that will lay out results of several years of data collection, including field tests on Broadway in New York City and at FedEx Field in Maryland.
The white-space airwaves could become available in February, when TV broadcasters switch from analog to more efficient digital signals.
"The (FCC) chairman has had a strong interest in pursuing the unlicensed model on a test basis," said Stanford Washington Research Group analyst Paul Gallant. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Commission moved in that direction."