Cable, Phone Companies Watch Warily

A coalition of big technology companies wants to bring high-speed Internet access to consumers in a new way: over television airwaves. Key to the project is whether a device scheduled to be delivered to federal labs today lives up to its promise.

The coalition, which includes Microsoft and Google, wants regulators to allow idle TV channels, known as white space, to be used to beam the Internet into homes and offices. But the Federal Communications Commission first must be convinced that such traffic would not bleed outside its designated channels and interfere with existing broadcasts.

The six partners -- Microsoft, Google, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Philips -- say they can meet that challenge. Today, they plan to give FCC officials a prototype device, built by Microsoft, that will undergo months of testing.

If the device passes muster, the coalition says, it could have versions in stores by early 2009.

Proponents liken the idea to so-called WiFi signals, which provide wireless Internet access from phone or cable companies to users in airports, coffee shops and elsewhere.

"These devices have the potential to take the success of the WiFi phenomenon to another level," said Jonathan S. Adelstein, an FCC commissioner.

Warily watching from the sidelines are the major telephone and cable companies that compete to bring high-speed Internet into millions of businesses and homes.

Telecommunications officials and analysts differ on the degree to which TV-spectrum-based Internet access might seriously threaten existing Internet providers.

Some said a new Internet provider might force the older companies to drop prices. Others said the available white-space spectrum might be too limited to make much of an impact.

Wireless carriers said they were not afraid of new rivals. "The wireless industry was born in a competitive environment," said Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, playing down the risk to his company. AT&T said in a statement that FCC rules "should protect not only current TV band incumbents from interference but also those services that will be introduced into adjacent spectrum" in the future.

Several analysts said a TV-spectrum system might make the most sense in rural areas, where high-speed Internet access via phone or cable lines is expensive to deploy. Small companies might build some towers, beam white-space spectrum to farm homes and cabins, and connect it to an Internet provider, they said.

In urban areas, a TV Internet system might somehow be combined with phone- or cable-provided Internet service to redirect signals through every wall of a house or office -- without replacing the phone or cable company as the provider, said a person affiliated with the coalition. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record about such possible uses.

In a document filed with the FCC, the coalition stated: "As the world's largest producers of consumer electronics, software, semiconductors, personal computers, and peripheral devices, the Coalition's members stand ready to commit substantial resources to bring these advancements to consumers."

Google joined the coalition because the effort could create opportunities to transmit information over new platforms. It also might strengthen Google's hand should the traditional Internet pipelines -- big phone and cable companies -- start charging Internet companies higher prices to move their content more swiftly to consumers.

"It recognizes that the heart of the problem is a lack of competition on the broadband platform," said Rick Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel in Washington. "We're very interested in finding ways to create platforms for other broadband connectivity."

Staff writers Sam Diaz and Alan Sipress contributed to this report.