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03.29.2004
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
Broadcasters holding back wireless innovation

American broadcasters “are locked in a behind-the-scenes struggle that could stifle the initiative and starve burgeoning wireless applications,” says a report by the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper said the increasing popularity of mobile phones and data devices has created a shortage of available spectrum, and the FCC would like to reassign unused TV channels to carry high-speed Internet. However, the report said, rearranging spectrum allocation is meeting resistance from broadcasters.

The newspaper noted that the spectrum policy in the U.S. is based on the days when the airwaves were abundant and on primitive radio and TV receivers that are susceptible to signal interference. Now “smart radios” can sense when a channel is being used and shift signal transmission to another vacant channel, the newspaper said, quoting FCC chairman Michael Powell.

The FCC solicited comments on how smart radio technology may enable it to free up spectrum for two-way communication. Edmond Thomas, the FCC’s chief engineer, said he expects a decision by late this year or early next.

Wi-Fi Internet connections already use smart radio technology to look for unengaged channels, Thomas said. “This isn’t science fiction,” he said. “It’s here now.”

The commercial broadcasters, led by lobbyists at the NAB, is urging the FCC to take “a conservative approach,” the Tribune reported, contending there could be interference with existing licensed broadcast stations.

Kevin Werbach, a technology analyst, proposes doing away with all restrictions on transmitting and receiving RF signals. He said he would replace the current FCC structure with a system under which broadcasters who suffer damage from signal interference could sue those who harmed them.

“Look at highways,” said Werbach. “If the government controlled all access to highways and gave GMs a license to put only its cars on the road, we’d think that was kind of crazy. But the same arguments are behind why we have that kind of control over wireless.

“Giving every device intelligence changes things, just like cars on the road,” he said. “When someone starts to change into your lane, you don’t just sit, you get out of the way. Smart radios can operate the same way.”

Such sentiments irk firms that hold licenses to use spectrum, the Tribune reported. “They fear that unfettered signal transmission, even by smart radios, will turn their spectrum to junk.”

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