Skip to main content

by James O'Neal, Technology Editor, TV Technology

Quite rightly the impending DTV transition has kept the white space device torches burning low. However, some recent WSD implementation forums here in Washington provide plenty of assurance that the beast is only resting.

As an attendee at two of these, I was impressed that one rather troublesome loophole isn’t really being given the attention it deserves.

All of us should know by now that WDS operating power is capped and fixed installations have an antenna height restriction.

Having been around for a while and a skeptic by nature, I questioned FCC representatives about just how these power and antenna limitations were to be guaranteed. The answer was not particularly encouraging. Basically it amounted to “we’ll respond to reported violations and enforcement of the rules.”

For those of you too young to remember, in the late 1950s, the commission launched another very (on the surface) altruistic bit of rulemaking—the introduction of the class D citizens band radio service. This pre-cell phone service was supposed to provide convenient wireless communications. Spectrum was carved from an existing service. Sound familiar?

There were checks and balances for maintaining order and minimizing interference. Radio outputs couldn’t exceed 4 watts and maximum antenna heights were established. Other caveats and rules included a station license and a limitation on communications distance.

It didn’t take long before some CB users became unhappy with their radio’s reach and applied a bit of ingenuity—outboard high power linear amplifiers and tall towers.

Pretty soon the CB linear business became a profitable cottage industry. Sure, there were some raids and busts, but illegal linears proliferated like rabbits. Some users of these “afterburners” attained ERP levels that would make many an AM broadcast station operator turn green with “power envy.”

Interference complaints soared. By then, many CBers were ignoring the requirement for a license. (Why would you license something that is going to be operated in a blatantly illegal manner?) The FCC tried to enforce CB rules for a while, but was clearly outgunned. It reached the point that if an interfering CBer was taken to task at all, it was by a neighborhood association or local vigilante group. The commission finally realized that, like cockroaches and other pests, illegal CB was never going to just “go away.” License requirements were dropped, and most illegal operation was more or less condoned. (As a footnote, CB spread into several foreign countries through illegal importation of American gear. A national interference problem eventually took on global aspects.)

I’m sure that individuals and groups are even now counting the dollars to be made once WSD users start looking for coverage “boosters.” History often repeats itself and I predict there’ll be a lot more demand for WSD “boosters” than for CB linears. I also predict too that the software/hardware hacker community is eagerly anticipating the rollout of WSDs. Who wouldn’t want to be the first to develop a successful “work-around” for the geolocation and other safeguards implanted in the boxes? History shows that for just about any “foolproof” technology protection scheme, this crowd has delighted in breaking it for fun and profit—think satellite and cable encryption. Why should WSD security measures be any different?

There’s also something else to think about. From all reports, 8-VSB DTV is much more sensitive to interference than its analog precursor, but this time set owners won’t even be able to hear “breaker, breaker one-nine” as a clue to what’s happening when their picture blanks out.