FCC Tells Broadcasters to Share

Commission approves opening spectrum to unlicensed devices

There was more than one big vote last week. The FCC, by a margin of 5-0, approved the use of unlicensed mobile devices in the unused TV spectrum band—the so-called “white spaces.”

Computer companies say access to that spectrum opens the door to more ubiquitous wireless broadband usage. Broadcasters say it opens a Pandora's box of potential interference problems that could seriously hurt their business.

In a battle that pitted Bill Gates against Dolly Parton, both of whom had made personal pleas on opposite sides of the issue, the mogul trumped the musician. Broadcasters are quite likely to challenge the decision in court, said one highly placed FCC official. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) certainly sounded that way.

“Fortunately, today's vote is just the beginning of a fight on behalf of the 110 million households that rely on television for news, entertainment and lifesaving emergency information,” the NAB said in a statement.

The organization pushed hard against allowing portable unlicensed devices in the white spaces, contending that they will interfere with TV signals—if true, a significant threat just as broadcasters are about to be shifting to all-digital delivery, which boasts a clearer picture.

The FCC had been billing the move as a way to get more efficient use out of the TV spectrum and boost broadband penetration. The spectrum is beachfront property because it travels easily through walls and other obstructions.

The item as voted was advertised as a small and cautious step; it includes a number of hurdles for approval of the spectrum-sensing devices that broadcasters are most concerned about. But while FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the white spaces “the blank pages on which we will write our broadband future,” broadcasters were hoping it was not the blank marble on which the government was writing their epitaph.

While the NAB gave the FCC some props for trying to mitigate the damage, broadcasters were not happy with the outcome. David Donovan, who heads up the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), said the decision “imperils American's television reception” in order to satiate the free-spectrum appetites of Google and Microsoft.

“MSTV understands that the FCC, the white space coalition and the wireless innovation alliance have no interest or intention of disrupting television reception and will never allow devices that could cause harmful interference to enter the marketplace,” said Google spokesman Jake Ward. “It is absurd to think otherwise.”

MSTV's objection is shared by sports leagues, Broadway producers, musicians and some legislators.

But the FCC said they were relying on FCC engineers that the devices could be allowed without interfering with DTV reception. Dissenters foresee possible interference with their wireless microphones.

A key point of contention has been the power levels at which laptops and other portable devices can operate. Computer companies want higher powers on channels adjacent to TV signals and broadcasters argue just the opposite. The FCC agreed to cap power levels on devices operating on channels next to TV signals, but did so at the 40 milliwatt level computer companies like Microsoft and Google can live with, rather than the 5 milliwatts broadcasters had requested.

Here's how the FCC drew up its rules to try to protect TV station signals and wireless microphones from the unlicensed fixed and mobile devices:

  • First the FCC rejected a request to allow the devices to operate before the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to digital.
  • The FCC will initially require the devices to have a combination of geolocation and spectrum-sensing technologies, allowing spectrum-sensing alone only after more rigorous testing and public comment. Broadcasters offered a combination of spectrum-sensing and geolocation as a compromise, but spectrum-sensing alone remains a problem for them. Also, the initial devices must also be able to access an online database of incumbents on the band—TV signals and wireless microphones—and steer clear of them.
  • Wireless microphones—Parton's key concern given her entertainment venues—will be protected by preventing the mobile devices from operating by registering the venue, say Dollywood, in the online database as an off-limits area. Cable headends, which also use broadcast spectrum, can register in the database as well. FCC engineers will certify all white spaces devices, including testing the devices.
  • Devices that rely solely on spectrum-sensing will have higher hurdles to climb.

First, the vetting process will be open to the public, starting when the device manufacturer first applies. Then there will be testing in the lab and in “real-world environments.” After that, any approval, at least initially, will require a vote by the full commission.

The FCC also opened an inquiry into whether the power caps on the devices should be loosened in rural areas, where there are fewer stations to interfere with.

It was a big week for Google's wireless spectrum plans.

At the same meeting, the FCC approved a Google-backed deal to create a new wireless company, Clearwire, that will offer broadband service via WiMax, which has been described as wireless Internet access on steroids. Time Warner and Comcast are also partners in that venture.

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