Broadcasters See Red Over White Spaces

Their argument: Interference could halt DTV transition

Broadcasters are warning FCC commissioners and staffers of a threat to the DTV transition from allowing unlicensed personal, portable devices like PDAs and microphones to operate in the so-called white spaces between DTV channels.

They say the potential for interference to DTV signals could stop the transition cold. Congressional Democrats have been hammering the commission over the DTV transition, warning that the February 2009 date to end analog broadcasts could slip if the FCC doesn't move more aggressively.

Broadcasters argue that their DTV signals will be sitting ducks if the FCC allows unlicensed wireless devices to share their digital spectrum, as computer companies have been pushing for.

Dire scenarios

In meetings with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Deborah Tate, and legislative and FCC staffers, business leaders including David Donovan, the head of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), broadcasting industry's spectrum-policy lobby; representatives of Hubbard, Raycom, and Scripps station groups; and Disney's top Washington executive, Preston Padden, painted some dire scenarios.

Breaking news might not get broken, they said. Hurricane warnings could be disrupted; those beautiful digital pictures could be garbled. They also showed testimony that NASCAR coverage could be affected.

Robert Hubbard, president of Hubbard Television Group and a board member of MSTV, has been one of the leading voices on the issue. He says that allowing such devices as a wireless videogame controller could halt the DTV transition in its tracks: “This is a serious and significant problem to Americans if television is important to them, with the potential to produce interference over wide areas.”

Jeffrey Willis, who handles remote broadcasts for ESPN, argues that a smart PDA might think it could operate on vacant channel 22 in Concord, N.H., for example, when, in fact, ESPN would need to use the channel for 50 RF transmitters/receivers to provide the sort of 360-degree coverage of a NASCAR race there—in-car video, pit-crew reports, etc.—that TV viewers have come to expect and demand. Moreover, local stations covering the race would have all the same newsgathering-spectrum demands, Willis argues in a filing with the FCC.

Wireless-microphone manufacturers have already weighed in, saying that preachers could be cut off in mid sermon, and Broadway technicians, who also rely on the microphones, have warned that allowing a technological free-for-all in the band could “threaten the economic viability of our industry both on Broadway and on tour,” as John Tiggeloven, VP for Disney Theatrical Productions, argued in a letter to Adelstein.

The FCC has already begun the process of opening up the DTV band to wireless devices and has said it is inclined to allow those devices to operate without an FCC license. But it has not yet made that move official.

Sharing the DTV band with unlicensed mobile devices has troubled broadcasters from the outset since they see no way for the FCC to effectively police interference standards, particularly from off-shore imports. The concern over mobile devices was ratcheted up recently by the FCC's own testing of DTV receivers for possible interference. “This issue is really heating up,” Padden says.

Under-achieving receivers

The FCC's study of eight DTV receivers concluded that “no receiver appeared to fully achieve the ATSC-recommended guidelines for interference-rejection performance.” It even pointed out that the current guidelines are less stringent than ones expected to be applied to DTV interference.

The study also found that, at low signal levels—say, in the fringes of a station's coverage area—DTV signals are susceptible to interference from signals that are not just one channel away but two channels, so that, even if the FCC allows the devices, it should make sure they can't operate within two channels of a TV station, Hubbard says.

Broadcasters are optimistic that their campaign is working. Says Hubbard, “I think we're making some progress.”

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