Producers, Comcast Sound Off

Unlicensed wireless devices and set-top boxes stir industry ire
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It's 2010, and Prince is headlining the half-time show at Super Bowl XLIV when, suddenly, his mike begins to crackle with interference from the unlicensed wireless broadband devices filling the stadium.

That is the nightmare scenario being floated in Washington by a trio of veteran program producers and engineers hoping to dramatize the potential disaster of allowing such devices as smart radios to share the same band used by wireless microphones in event programs like the Grammy Awards and NFL games.

The FCC is laying the groundwork to allow advanced wireless devices to operate in the broadcast band. Last month, Hank Neuberger, Grammy Award-winning former president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences; Steve Gibson, music director of the Grand Ole Opry; and Paul Gallo, executive director of the Professional Audio Manufacturers Alliance and the Sports Video Group (with which B&C Contributing Editor Ken Kerschbaumer is affiliated), voiced their concerns in meetings with FCC commissioners and legislators.

“The consumers, when they buy the big-screen TV and put it in their rooms, want the finest audio in their homes, and they want it to get better,” says Gallo. “They want more channels of audio for NASCAR or the Super Bowl. We just want to make sure they get heard.”

The trio met with Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Robert McDowell, as well as a handful of members of Congress or their staffers. According to Neuberger, many were surprised at the potential impact.

He and his associates are not looking to halt the proliferation of the wireless devices. They want the FCC to test any new devices for potential interference with microphones—and they are troubled by a new bill that could push the commission to move too fast.

Introducing the bill last month, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, charged that “the Federal Communications Commission seems intent to inexplicably drag its feet” on allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the broadcast spectrum. (Last week, the FCC reiterated its preference for an unlicensed approach. Chairman Kevin Martin says he hopes to have a decision as early as this spring.)

But Neuberger contends that failing to properly test for interference “could absolutely hurt the transition to digital TV.”

Gallo appears confident that production pros Neuberger and Gibson made a strong case by conjuring the possible disruptions to shows like American Idol. “The senators and others have not heard from us before about what it takes to produce a first-class audio environment,” he says. “They've heard from us now.”

A Blast From Cable

Comcast minced no words last week when it blasted the FCC's refusal to waive the impending ban on digital set-top boxes that integrate security and channel-surfing functions. Calling the decision by the FCC's Media Bureau “fatally flawed” and “egregious in its factual and legal distortions and bias,” the cable giant asked for a full-commission review.

In an effort to spur a retail market for cable boxes, the FCC is banning digital set-tops that have both the security and surfing functions. After a couple of delays, the commission set July 1 as the deadline for cable companies to comply.

The cable industry, led by Comcast, had sought a waiver of the deadline in order to develop a downloadable security solution that will make the separation cheaper and easier than the current hardware solution.

But Comcast was particularly piqued by the Media Bureau's suggestion that it could resubmit its request if it were seeking a waiver only for subscribers to family and ethnic tiers. Martin has pushed cable companies to offer family tiers as a way to give viewers more control over sexual and violent content.

“The bureau would require that Comcast offer specific types of programming content—family and ethnic tiers—if it wants to receive a waiver,” the company says in a statement. “The bureau's plan raises serious First Amendment concerns.”

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