Wireless Entrepreneurs: Can You Hear Us Now?

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Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee remain pretty much in agreement that some legislation is needed to open up spectrum to wireless devices, likely including some in the spaces between broadcast channels.

Driving the concern is the rollout of broadband service to rural and other underserved areas.

At a hearing on the issue in the committee Tuesday, John Kneuer, of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, pointed out that, starting in 2005, the Office of Management and Budget said spectrum policy has to be looked at in terms of conserving and efficiently using spectrum.

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has co-sponsored a bill to open up broadcast spectrum to unlicensed devices, urged passage of the bill, saying the Bush administration was not hitting its target of ubiquitous broadband service by 2007, adding that he thought the FCC was "sitting on" a proceeding that would resolve the problem.

The FCC has also proposed opening up the so-called "white areas" in the broadcast band to unlicensed devices. Catherine Seidel, FCC acting bureau chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said the FCC has been applying a balanced and flexible approach to more-efficient use of the spectrum, rather than trying to come up with a rigid regulatory framework.

Thomas Walsh, of the rural Cellular Association, argued that it is technologically feasible to open up the broadcast band to unlicensed devices "with no danger" to existing broadcast channels, and said there is a clear benefit to doing so. Kerry called broadcasters' fears of interference from the new unlicensed devices a "false argument."

Broadcasters are concerned that, once the unlicensed devices are operating, it will be impossible to get those genies back in the bottle if they do cause interference.

Broadcaster Robert Hubbard (Hubbard Broadcasting), who is also an officer with the Association For Maximum Service TV, said he understood the importance of rural areas and bringing broadband to them, but he said there is a difference between offering that and providing "unlimited access to unlicensed devices withing the TV band," which he said was problematic.

"The interference concerns we have are very real," he said, "and have been expressed by the IEEE, the worldwide technical standards body," which he says is working on its own rural broadband solution. This must be innovated, Hubbard said, not legislated.

Hubbard also pointed out the possible interference to newsgathering, including to wireless microphones. And interference in the DTV world means no picture, he told the senators: "That is the harsh reality."  He said he had brought with him a letter from some consumer electronics manufacturers concerned about interference to their DTV sets.

Dr. Kevin Kahn, director of the communications technology lab at Intel, responded to the interference concerns by saying that Intel did not want even low-powered radios operating on occupied channels. But he said the point was that the devices would be operating on unused channels. "We honestly don't see the issue," he said, adding that Intel was interested in clear TV reception, too, as people began wanting to watch TV on their laptops. "We think it is extremely feasible to operate on unoccupied channels, and [the devices] won't be interfering with TVs old or new."

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), co-chairman of the Wireless Caucus, said that "any technology that offers promise of extended rural service" is one he wants to embrace. He also wants to relate the issue to media consolidation, saying that "one relelentless push has been concentration in every area." He said as the Congress ponders the use of spectrum, it also needs to think about the consequences of "unchecked concentration."

One of the concentration issues that concerned some legislators is an FCC policy meant to encourage  minority and women bidders in spectrum auctions. Some large companies have been securing de facto bidding credits by lining up such buyers, then buying the spectrum from them after they win at an artificially depressed price.

The FCC has promised to close that loophole by the next advanced wireless service auction, scheduled for June.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) asked Seidel whether she thought it was feasible to make that fix before the June auction. "That is certainly the FCC's intention," she said.

Two bills have been introduced in the Senate to allow unlicensed devices in the broadcast band, one by Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, the other by Senator George Allen (Kerry is co-sponsor of that bill).
Stevens said Tuesday that communications hearings were "winding down"--there are two more in the marathon 17-hearing lineup--suggesting it was time to act on the unlicensed wireless proposal..

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