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FCC says it was just kidding!

The Federal Communications Commission's director of scenario planning, Phil Bellaria, claims we all misunderstood the agency’s intentions to take away TV broadcast spectrum. He’s now gone on the record saying the commission never “seriously” considered implementing such a plan. Rather, the commission was looking at “a scenario that establishes a voluntary marketplace mechanism so that broadcast TV stations have a choice in how they want to use their spectrum.”

I guess that means you can keep your spectrum. For now.

Here’s the bottom line.

According to Bellaria, stations can give up some portion of their spectrum, say 3MHz for which they could receive some compensation. However, they will then have to become part of another station’s multicast. Current rules would not permit such a station to receive “must-carry” status. However, the rules could be changed, says Bellaria.

A station could also give up all its spectrum, perhaps get more money and continue operation as a direct feed to the local cable system. However, no must-carry provisions would apply. One could assume the station might have to pay for carriage on the cable system. If not now, certainly later.

In an interview with B&C, Bellaria claims the idea is to “keep the pipeline of spectrum coming into the market to meet the needs of broadband usage over time…Certainly, the first step that we would prefer would be voluntary.” He admitted that should insufficient broadcasters participate in the voluntary stage, a mandatory element could be imposed.

In the interview, Bellaria sidestepped questions about just how long any voluntary participation might be available. “Voluntary” could be a temporary condition.

Of course, once Congress gets involved, any possibility of selling spectrum and returning a portion of those funds to broadcasters becomes extremely tenuous. Politicians are loathe to give up money without first attaching lots of strings.

New game consoles bypass cable

The "New York Times" reports that Microsoft is in discussions with Disney to deliver ESPN programming to its gaming console. Set-top box (STB) functionality is not particularly new as the Xbox 360 is already delivering Sky programming in the UK. The software program, “Sky Player on Xbox 360” provides viewers with the same electronic program guide and content that comes from Sky’s own STB.

“For a per-subscriber fee, ESPN could provide live streams of sporting events, similar to the ones available through ESPN 360, a service that is available from some high-speed Internet providers,” says the "New York Times." Microsoft might also create ESPN-centric interactive games.

Other gaming console manufacturers have similar plans. The Sony PlayStation can receive BBC shows and Weather Channel updates, as well as streaming content from Netflix. Last week, Netflix announced it would extend its streaming service to the Nintendo Wii.

Microsoft is working with AT&T to allow the Xbox 360 to act as an STB for AT&T’s U-verse service. One might assume that this approach plays nicely into the FCC’s plan to provide viewers with multiple ways to access cable and over-the-top programming without purchasing or renting an STB from a cable company.

Microsoft has sold more than 39 million Xbox 360 gaming consoles, so that’s a potentially large audience. According to, about half of those consoles are hooked up to Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. This $20 per month service allows users to play multiplayer games, watch movies from Netflix and purchase or rent movies through Microsoft’s own online video store.

On the surface it appears that Microsoft would be competing with both itself and AT&T by supporting both over-the-top delivery services. In addition, the "Wall Street Journal" reported that Apple was also negotiating to allow network programming from CBS and Disney to work on Apple’s Internet TV STB.

A report from The Diffusion Group predicts that by 2012:

• Approximately 190 million households will use a next-generation game console;

• 80 percent of these households — 148 million — will have this console connected to the Internet; and

• 75 percent of connected-console households — more than 110 million — will use console-based video services at least a couple times each week.

According to consulting firm Deloitte, almost early 60 percent of American homes now have at least one game console. Three years ago it was only 44 percent.

The FCC is serious about finding new ways to deliver broadband and content to homes. With a combined penetration approaching 200 million, providing such new broadband and video capability via gaming consoles might force some cable companies to reexamine their fee structure.

FCC plans use of white space

A Jan. 18 article from "Scientific American" details the FCC’s plans to use white space as a component of the agency’s broadband plan. While few have seen the FCC’s proposal because it’s still a work in progress, outside experts say it will be a challenge to develop technology that can accurately locate open frequencies and prevent interference. The "Scientific American" article claims that this challenge was (at least) one reason the commission had to request a one-month extension of its deadline to deliver its broadband plan.

Broadcasters have argued strongly that using white space will create interference to broadcast signals. A suspicious mind might think that the commission’s recent trial balloon calling for a “voluntary mechanism” where stations would either go completely off the air or reduce bandwidth and become part of another station’s multicast are connected to the use of white space.

Some spectrum critics fear that a the use of unregulated wireless devices will simply interfere with each other, TV broadcasts and wireless microphone users. Live newscasts, sporting events, and live performances all require interference-free spectrum. Many engineers think that professional users will experience a wild, wild west scenario of interference if the FCC approves such unlicensed and unregulated devices in white-space frequencies.

Two solutions have been proposed to identify open frequencies: a real-time database and spectral sensing. Both have potential problems.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-IL, has introduced legislation in the House that would require the FCC to authorize access by owners and operators of wireless microphones to a geolocation database maintained for the purpose of prohibiting the operation of unlicensed TV band devices on protected frequencies.

Google has offered to create the desired database, although many have criticized the offer as tantamount to "allowing a fox to watch the henhouse." Intelligent radios would access the database, identify open spectrum and connect to the Internet on that frequency. Of course, the first obvious problem is that the wireless device would need to connect to the Internet to check the database but it couldn’t access the Internet until it first checked the database.

The second solution is provided by spectral sensing radios. However, previous FCC tests have shown that technology to be temperamental and not always reliable. Luke D'Arcy, head of cognitive radio technology at Cambridge Consultants, a company that offers a product called InCognito to sense open spectrum, says, "In practice it's very difficult to make this work reliably."

According to the company’s Web site, “InCognito offers a key building block for companies wishing to exploit the newly available spectrum. Unlike the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, the white-space frequencies already have incumbent users, notably wireless microphones and TV broadcasters. InCognito uses cognitive ‘spectral sensing’ radio technology to accurately detect and avoid incumbent broadcasts.”