TV Could Get Wireless Roommate

FCC considers allowing unlicensed operators to share broadcast band

Will TV stations one day share spectrum with garage-door openers and cordless phones?

In a move guaranteed to make broadcasters nervous, the FCC last week raised the possibility that portions of the TV broadcast band in the future might be made available for unlicensed devices operating in unused "white spaces" between channels.

Unlicensed products on the market now range from cordless phones to wireless broadband services and are generally forbidden due to concerns about interference to licensed spectrum users. So far, none are permitted within TV spectrum.

At its December meeting Wednesday, the FCC issued a notice of inquiry, two degrees of procedural separation from creation of a new rule, to examine possibilities for greater use of unlicensed devices, particularly in rural areas where unused spectrum capacity is greater.

Commissioner Kevin Martin, while endorsing the idea of making more spectrum available generally for unlicensed devices, criticized even the suggestion that broadcast frequencies might be tapped.

Unforeseen interference could be created, he said. "I fear unlicensed devices will create additional interference problems when digital television gets under way." Even in less congested rural areas, interference might be a problem because more people rely on over-the-air television and live outside the general signal contour of their closest stations. Rural viewers might "lose the few broadcast signals upon which they rely," Martin said.

The inquiry comes a few weeks after the commission issued a separate Spectrum Policy Task Force Report that raised the possibility of additional uses for the broadcast band but implied that no changes were in the offing.

Issuance of the inquiry before the spectrum report's Jan. 9 comment due date caused some broadcasters to worry that the idea is being fast-tracked before the FCC has resolved interference problems that new digital channels cause to existing analog ones. "The proliferation of these devices may have an adverse impact on all television receivers," said MSTV President David Donovan. "Policing such interference at the user level is impossible."

FCC engineers, however, say computer advances make it possible to design equipment that could monitor spectrum to detect frequencies already in use and ensure that transmission only occur on open frequencies. Unlicensed devices can be designed with capability to changing frequencies to open channels.