Programming

TV Industry Storms Hill, FCC Over White Spaces

NAB Top Brass, Other Broadcast Executives Meet with Legislators, FCC 9/10/2007 10:20:00 AM Eastern

Like a general pouring men into a break in the opponents line, broadcasters and their sports production and TV set manufacturer allies Monday planned to storm Capitol Hill and the FCC to oppose allowing mobile unlicensed devices to share the so-called white spaces between TV channels in the broadcast spectrum.

Joining National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr for a Monday press conference before they took the Hill were TV-industry executives including NAB board chairman Jack Sander of Belo; Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations and chairman of the NAB TV board; Elizabeth Murphy Burns of Morgan Murphy Media; Anne Sweeney, president of the ABC TV group; Jack Abernathy, CEO, Fox Television Stations; Jeff Willis of ESPN Productions; and a veritable host of others.

They argued that allowing unlicensed spectrum-sensing devices, like personal digital assistants and laptops, into the TV band threatens the transition to digital TV for not only an unproven technology, but one that they pointed out has been demonstrated not to work.

The Federal Communications Commission conducted two separate tests that showed interference to DTV sets from the devices and devices failing to accurately sense when a channel is vacant.

It is those tests that Rehr said represent the break in the line.

In addition to talking with key legislators and FCC chairman Kevin Martin, the NAB is airing a spot on Washington, D.C.-area English- and Spanish-language stations that shows a befuddled viewer face with a pixilated Redskins game.

Rehr also said the NAB would fly the heads of 41 state associations to Washington Sept. 19 for face time with their legislators.

Hoping to address computer-company arguments that broadcasters are simply trying to protect their own turf and impeded the rollout of rural broadband, Rehr said he and Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) president David Donovan sent a letter to Martin reiterating its support for allowing fixed devices in the TV band -- just not the mobile devices that rely on a spectrum-sensing technology that they argued does not, and essentially cannot, work.

"Both the NAB and MSTV want to work aggressively with the FCC to help bring broadband to rural America, Donovan argued, just not at the expense of the TV pictures of "millions of Americans."

"If you can't protect, you must reject," Donovan added, borrowing from late O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Johnny Cochran, though arguably harkening more to the result of that trial than the perception of the strength of Cochran's case.

Also responding to the criticism that TV spectrum marked inefficient use, with some markets using only a handful of the allocated channels, broadcasters argued that it would be inefficient use to allow devices that could derail the DTV transition.

Frank cited a problem one of his stations had several years ago with interference to the satellite feed of big-ticket syndicated shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! that produced an unwatchable product. He said it took three-and-a-half months to resolve the issue, working with the phone companies, which they knew were causing the interference. Imagine that scenario with an unlicensed device where the source was untrackable, he added.

John Taylor, of TV-set manufacturer LG Electronics, argued that it would be a "tragic mistake" to allow unproven devices, echoing the argument that spectrum sensing doesn't work.

Martin has targeted October for a rulemaking on how to allow for more efficient use of the DTV spectrum. The commission has already approved opening up the DTV-spectrum band to fixed unlicensed devices, and Martin would like to be able to get the kind of flexibility and efficiency of use promised by computer companies, notably Microsoft, for so-called spectrum-sensing mobile devices that that they say will be able to distinguish between used and unused TV channels.

NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton took the opportunity for a little theatrics, opening the press conference with the announcement of a PowerPoint presentation. A blue-screen fatal-error message appeared, followed by Wharton's feigned frustration at the failure of a Microsoft application.

The New America Foundation issued a release Monday taking issue with the broadcasters’ arguments in a paper on the "myths vs. realities" of the white-spaces argument.

The White Spaces Coalition -- a consortium of computer companies that is pushing for the unlicensed devices -- responded to the NAB announcement: “What's at stake here is simple: the promise of greater broadband access for millions of Americans including those in underserved rural areas,” coalition counsel Scott Blake Harris said. “The FCC's analysis has confirmed that this spectrum can be used for broadband internet without interfering with Americans' TV signals.”

He added, “Utilizing this spectrum is an important step toward achieving the ultimate goal of delivering the significant benefits of broadband access to more Americans.

We commend chairman Martin and the FCC for their ongoing commitment to the development of this important technology and we pledge our continued cooperation with the commission to resolve any remaining technical issues. The promise that this spectrum holds for bringing broadband to more Americans is too great to ignore.”

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