Donovan Gives “White Spaces” Warning To Sports Broadcasters

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Broadcasters could face significant problems in using wireless microphones for live sports coverage if the government approves the use of new unlicensed wireless devices in the broadcast frequency band, warns Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) president David Donovan.

At issue are consumer devices, such as laptop computers with wireless cards, which would use free spectrum or “white spaces” within the broadcast band to enable broadband services. Using wireless technology to increase broadband penetration has been a priority for both the FCC and Congress, and the FCC issued a proceeding on the matter in 2004. The idea of allowing unlicensed devices was then addressed by Congress this year with the Wireless Innovation Act, which suggested using slivers of spectrum between Channels 21 and 51 to transmit data to such devices.

MSTV, the spectrum watchdog for the broadcast industry, lobbied hard against that bill on the grounds that unlicensed devices would interfere with the reception of digital television (DTV) signals by consumer DTV sets. The bill ultimately didn’t pass, despite the support of the Senate Commerce Committee.

But Donovan says the issue isn’t going away, and that its impact could reach beyond the digital television in a consumer’s living room and onto the sidelines of major sporting events, where networks routinely rely on wireless mics for audio coverage.

“There is a theory in Washington, D.C. that the idea of open access to spectrum is a good thing for America,” said Donovan, who addressed the Sports Video Group’s League Technology Summit in Manhattan last Tuesday.

Donovan noted that wireless broadband is being promoted heavily in the Beltway by computer industry giants Intel and Microsoft, who would like to see mobile and portable devices allowed, and that the FCC has reactivated its proceeding on the matter.

In October, the Commission voted to allow fixed wireless devices to operate in the broadcast band, and solicited comments on whether such devices should be licensed or unlicensed and whether mobile devices should be allowed. The FCC plans to begin testing wireless devices this spring, with its analysis due for completion by December 2007. If it gives the go-ahead, such devices could start hitting retail stores by early 2009.

The big problem for broadcasters and production companies who provide live telecasts of football, baseball and other major sports is that while the FCC will analyze potential interference to digital television sets, it hasn’t looked at the issue of interference to wireless mics. Donovan is asking the sports production community to rally behind MSTV on the issue, and has already worked with wireless mic vendors Shure and Total RF to try to educate the FCC about sports production’s unique predicament.

If the wireless devices in question wind up approved for unlicensed operation and proliferate into the market, the damage may be irreversible, says Donovan.

“There is no license to hold accountable, so if there is interference, who do you call?”

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