Companies hope to convince the FCC that it can use these unlicensed airwaves, but broadcasters are fearful of interference.

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top technology companies have spent millions of dollars and nearly two years building devices, poring over laptops and working in federal labs trying to come up with a new way to provide high-speed Internet to bandwidth-hungry cities as well as hard-to-reach rural regions.

The companies moved from lab to field recently.

Engineers from the technology heavyweights, including Motorola and Philips, lugged their laptops and other equipment to parks, homes and high-rises around the Washington, D.C., area, hoping to prove to the Federal Communications Commission that the unlicensed airwaves between television stations, known as white spaces, could provide a new form of mobile Internet service.

Using white spaces “will provide a way to provide broadband across long distances at much faster speeds than cellphone networks and Wi-Fi,” said Jake Ward, spokesman for the Wireless Innovation Alliance, which includes Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

The group is trying to convince regulators that using the airwaves will provide broadband to rural schools, beam high-definition online video to low-income households and let consumers stream music while sitting in highway traffic.

First out of the gate was a team from Motorola. On a recent steamy day in the middle of Patapsco Valley State Park, about 10 miles west of Baltimore, Dave Gurney, an engineer for the company, set up shop in a parking lot surrounded by dense forest.

A black box the size of a suitcase hooked up to a laptop sat near the base of a tree-covered hill. An antenna perched on a tripod rested a few feet away.

A group of engineers stared intently at the contraption, as if it were about to spring to life.

“It’s done!” Gurney said. He held his breath as the men leaned in further and quickly jotted down a cryptic list of numbers. Then he ran the test again.

Big bets

The stakes are high for this mysterious black box. Tech giants and startups are betting that using white spaces could extend the Internet’s reach. They also hope it will spark a new wave of portable devices.

But the idea faces big hurdles. Broadcasters use adjacent airwaves to beam TV shows to viewers, and they say the technology could interfere with over-the-air signals.

Wireless microphone users, from pop stars to megachurch ministers, say using white spaces could blot out their sounds.

White-space backers say their devices will be able to detect and avoid frequencies being used by broadcasters and wireless mics. Critics say the devices are not reliable enough.

The FCC is trying to settle that debate. For more than a year, the agency has been testing prototypes with mixed results.

An early prototype built by Microsoft failed to operate in the FCC’s lab. Microsoft later determined the device was broken.

The FCC is now testing other prototypes built by Philips and Motorola as well as Silicon Valley startup Adaptrum and Singapore-based Institute for Infocomm Research.

The Motorola device connects to a database of TV stations operating within 125 miles and scans the airwaves nearly every second for other signals that may pop up unexpectedly, such as a wireless microphone.

If the device senses that it is within or near a TV station’s coverage area, it is supposed to avoid that station’s frequency. It then ranks empty frequencies by their proximity to existing signals. If a new signal suddenly appears, the white-space device should automatically switch to another open channel.

Recording results

Gurney ran the scan twice and recorded the results. He then covered the machine in Bubble Wrap, rolled it across the parking lot and ran the test again. Signal strengths can change by location, depending on how many trees, hills and people are nearby.

“We’re testing multiple times to make sure the results are consistent,” Gurney said.

But the results can be hard to decipher. At the first location, Motorola’s device indicated channel 51, for example, was open and available. At the second site, the device picked up a weak signal on the channel, suggesting it was already in use.

It has its skeptics

Motorola’s engineers say that means the signal changed slightly between locations, and the device would be able to avoid that channel as soon as it was detected. But Bruce Franca, vice president of policy and technology for the Association for Maximum Service Television, a broadcasting industry group, is skeptical.

“The results of every single test were different,” he said. “The device failed to recognize that certain channels are actually being occupied by TV signals. … Clearly this is not ready for prime time.”

Shure, which makes microphones and other audio equipment used in Broadway shows and sports games, argues the tests have not proved the prototypes can consistently detect TV signals, let alone wireless microphones that hop on frequencies without notice.

The FCC plans to test the white-space devices at an entertainment venue in the next few months.

The National Football League has offered the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium or the Washington Redskins’ park as possible venues. And the Recording Academy, which puts on the Grammy Awards, has offered up the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago next month for testing.

“That’s where the rubber will meet the road,” said Mark Brunner, senior director of brand management at Shure.

Unused airwaves

Q: What are white spaces?

A: The unused airwaves surrounding the frequencies used by TV broadcasters.

Q: How are they used?

A: Google, Microsoft and other technology firms want to use these airwaves to offer mobile Internet service, hoping it will spark new products and services. But broadcasters and microphone makers say the technology could disrupt their signals.

Q: What does that mean for me?

A: Proponents say accessing white spaces would allow consumers to surf the Web wirelessly and let companies offer broadband to underserved areas.

Q: What now?

A: The Federal Communications Commission is testing prototypes to decide whether they can operate in the airwaves, which will be available after the February switch to digital television.

The Washington Post