FCC Spectrum Tests Stand

White Spaces Coalition says wireless devices work OK, won't seek new tests

Contrary to reports anticipating a showdown with the FCC, computer companies won't ask the commission to repeat its tests of unlicensed wireless devices operating in the digital broadcast spectrum. Although tests concluded Microsoft's spectrum-sensing device failed to detect vacant channels, the company and its allies are confident that a second device works—and that they have demonstrated as much to an FCC eager to open up the TV band to advanced wireless devices.

The White Spaces Coalition, a consortium of Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Earthlink and Phillips, has been pushing the FCC to allow unlicensed portable devices like laptops and personal-digital assistants (PDA) to share spectrum with DTV stations. After the results were released on July 31, Microsoft complained that a malfunctioning scanner in its device had skewed the test's results and that the commission had failed to test a second device.

But according to its counsel, Scott Blake Harris, the coalition has no plans to ask for a do-over. “I think we'll leave it to the commission to see how they want to proceed,” Harris says. “If they wish to do additional testing, that's fine with us. If they don't think it's necessary, that's also likely to be fine with us.”

The FCC's testing of TV receivers last spring found interference from mobile devices to all eight receivers tested. Broadcasters trumpeted the findings as vindication of their long-held fear that portable devices operating in the broadcast band would disrupt DTV reception.

Despite the test results, the coalition says it has demonstrated to staffers at the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology that its spectrum-sensing device does, indeed, work.

“So [the broken device] didn't work. Big deal,” Harris says. “You wouldn't expect it to.”

What initial press accounts failed to note, he adds, was that a second device, “the Phillips device, which was not broken, accurately sensed and moved when it saw TV signals.”

But broadcasters maintain that the devices still disrupt adjacent TV channels.

“If both the Phillips and Microsoft devices work as advertised, they will still cause interference to over-the air TV reception,” says David Donovan, who heads the Association for Maximum Service Television. “Even if the devices worked accurately and sensed an occupied channel, the commission's data on interference from operating on an adjacent channel shows that there would be interference in 80% to 87% of a station's service area.”

No FCC Decision on Re-testing

An FCC Spokesman said the commission hasn't made any decision on whether or not to re-test the Microsoft device, and had no comment on why the FCC did not test a second Microsoft device after the first failed.

An FCC source said Chairman Martin remains “committed” to moving the process forward, and that the commission continues to work with all the parties to resolve issues about the testing: “If there is a new device or another device I don't imagine [testing] being a problem.”

The commission has already said it would allow so-called smart wireless devices that seek out unused bandwidth to share space with DTV signals, but has yet to say definitively whether those would be unlicensed or licensed, and whether they could be mobile or fixed.

Allowing mobile devices, like laptops, could open up the band to wireless broadband access, a prospect that has the computer companies pushing hard for the devices. Under heavy pressure from Congress to speed the rollout of broadband, particularly rural areas, the FCC is also looking to use that spectrum for advanced wireless service, unlicensed and portable, if at all possible.

Martin would like to be able to get more use out of the broadcast spectrum, which is ideal for wireless applications because it is less susceptible to signal interruptions from buildings and other large objects. But, as he said in an April interview (B&C, 4/9), that cannot come at the expense of the DTV transition: “And that is going to require our Office of Engineering and Technology to do the kind of testing to make sure there are devices that do that without interfering in a harmful way with broadcasters.”

But Martin and the FCC are in a tight spot. The same legislators who say the U.S. lags other countries in broadband penetration also caution the commission about doing anything to muck up the transition to digital.

E-mail comments to john.eggerton@reedbusiness.com