Broadcasters lose white spaces battle

In a glaring example of the broadcaster’s diminishing influence over the FCC, the commission voted unanimously last week to set aside white space spectrum for low-cost, high-speed Internet access and new unlicensed wireless devices.

Broadcasters claimed the use of portable devices would interfere with their DTV signals. Others, including Broadway theatre producers, sports franchises and musicians, argued the same for their wireless microphones. All had asked the FCC to delay the decision for public comment.

The FCC members, however, all said they were confident, after testing of the devices, that interference with broadcast television or wireless microphones was not a major risk. “It’s fair to say few other engineering analyses at the FCC have been as lengthy and open,” said commissioner Michael J. Copps.

Hybrid devices that use both geo-location and spectrum sensing will be allowed by the FCC. There will be numerous conditions — including power limits — on approval of devices that rely only on sensing technologies.

All the commissioners said the ruling could lead to development of a new generation of devices that use the spectrum to provide low-cost Internet access. The members said such access could be more reliable than WiFi, which also uses unlicensed frequencies but do not reach as far.

The measure was pushed hard by technology companies that included Google, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, all of whom will benefit from the spread of Internet access. They had the strong support of Kevin J. Martin, the FCC’s chairman.

“The FCC has taken a significant step to usher in a new era of technology allowing for major investments in innovative wireless broadband,” said Greg Brown, president and co-chief executive of Motorola.

Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, wrote on his blog that he believed engineers and entrepreneurs would be quick to build devices to take advantage of the white spaces. “We think that this spectrum will help put better and faster Internet connections in the hands of the public,” he wrote.

“Over the past eight years, the United States has fallen behind many other world leaders in providing fast, affordable Internet access. Nearly half of American homes are still not connected to broadband,” said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, an activist group supporting better Internet access.

“The phone and cable companies that dominate the broadband market promise more of the same slow speeds and high prices that put us in this mess. Opening white spaces adds much-needed competition and innovation — sparking economic growth at a time when jobs and investment are on a downward spiral.”

However, David Donovan, president of the Association of Maximum Service Television, said even the FCC cannot compromise the laws of physics. “Assertions regarding no interference will not prevent damage in the real world,” Donovan charged.

The NAB, in a written statement, said that by moving the white space vote forward, the FCC appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television.

Sources said the NAB might soon file a lawsuit regarding the decision.