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Broadcasters Asks Court to Nix FCC White Space Order

(March 3, 2009) WASHINGTON: The two big broadcast lobbies are asking the court to stop the FCC from allowing unlicensed devices to operate in unused broadcast TV channels. The National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., saying the arrangement would interfere with DTV reception.

The unused channels, known as “white spaces,” are left open so that TV station signals don’t interfere with one another. As wireless communications increased, so did the call to use those channels, which some deemed not as necessary with digital rather than analog transmissions.

Google, Microsoft and a coterie of computer giants proceeded to press the FCC to open up white spaces for unlicensed wireless communications. They argued that doing so would expand broadband access in rural areas, although skeptics note that if there were any money in doing so, incumbent broadband providers would be there. Allowing the commercial use of radio frequency spectrum without licensing is also a first for the FCC, which typically rakes in billions from license auctions, or sets public-interest ground rules like those for broadcasters.

The computer giants argued that licensing would unnecessarily slow down the deployment of broadband. They did not mention it would save them billions of dollars.

The FCC’s current unlicensed devices order, approved in a 5-0 vote, neither generates auction revenue nor does it impose public-interest obligations.

Incumbents in the spectrum, which include wireless mic users in addition to broadcasters, fear that if the devices do cause interference, there is no way to track them down without being able to trace a license.

The FCC’s November 2008 order allowing unlicensed devices requires certain protections for incumbent users, including the ability to detect and avoid them. Opponents say that the FCC’s own tests indicate submitted prototype devices were unable to do either.

Another strategy to prevent interference involves creating a data base of venues where wireless mics are used.

“The locations where wireless microphones are used, such as entertainment venues and for sporting events, can be registered in the database and will be protected as for other services,” the order states, establishing a one-kilometer safe zone around such venues. It effectively prohibits the use of unlicensed devices on Broadway, for example.

“Event site registrations will indicate the type of event, the TV channels used, the geographic coordinates of the event site, whether use of channels at the site is on an ongoing permanent basis,” etc. “Registration of temporary sites will also be permitted. Unlicensed TV band devices will not be allowed to operate within one kilometer of the recorded geographic coordinates of registered event venues, on the channels specified as in use by the registrant during the designated times when low-power auxiliary devices are used.”

A recently launched online white-space finder,, did not take into account the implications of this nascent database. -- Deborah D. McAdams