MSTV: Unlicensed Devices Could Sap FCC Power


The head of broadcasters' spectrum watchdog group, the Association for Maximum Service Television, Wednesday made the industry's case against allowing unlicensed wireless devices to share the digital broadcast spectrum.

It is an argument David Donovan has made many times before as the FCC ponders how to use the spectrum more efficiently and promote advanced communications services at the same time. But Donovan capped the arguments with a warning,just in case those arguments don't win the day.

"The underlying factual predicate of an unlicensed regime," he told a Media Institute audience in Washington Thursday, "is that there is no spectrum need for licensing. There are no limits on spectrum access. Spectrum is a function of improvements in the technology of interference avoidance." but, he said, that approach "challenges the factual predicate that underpins most of the content regulation for television broadcasting."

Donovan said it was ironic that some of the same groups pushing for unlicensed devices in the broadcast band "continue to push regulatory policies that impose content restrictions and obligations on broadcasters... They cannot have it both ways."

Of course, Donovan's preference, and that of broadcasters, is they not have it. Period. Broadcasters fear that allowing unlicensed devices in the DTV band could wreak havoc with the digital transition.

In fact, he turned the interference issue into a First Amendment issue, saying that interference goes "right to the heart of a broadcaster's ability to exercise [that] right.... Co-opting the rhetoric of some of the unlicensed device backers, Donovan said" The public's interest in hearing diverse sources of information and viewpoints cannot be achieved if the signals providing those diverse viewpoints cannot be received."

"The marketplace of ideas is premised on the principle that those who speak will be heard," said Donovan. "The First Amendment cannot function in a cacophony of digital voices where speech becomes nothing more than 'white noise.'"

How big a threat to broadcasters argue the devices could be. Let Donovan count the ways:

1) DTV interference is more acute. That's the "cliff effect." As in, reception drops off a cliff. Pictures freeze or cut out. It's an all or nothing proposition, he says.

2) As demand grows, more devices will mean more interference from more sources.

3) When there are problems, the FCC will not be able to put the genie back in the bottle "once the devices are back in the hands of the consumer."

4) There is no incentive for manufacturers to ensure the devices do not interfere. Or put the other way round, there is "every incentive," he argues to boost power beyond legal limits because it increases the range. He painted a picture of off-shore companies cranking out devices--radios or laptops, for instance--with no regard for interference rules.

5) Today's DTV receivers may not anticipate the interference from tomorrow's unlicensed device built to open standards.