FCC chairman proposes using white spaces for wireless broadband

After releasing a report that cleared white space testing from interference problems with television broadcasting, FCC chairman Kevin Martin last week proposed that the government open the white spaces in the digital television spectrum to deliver wireless broadband services.

“No one should ever underestimate the potential that new technologies and innovations may bring to society,” Martin said. He scheduled an FCC vote on the issue for Nov. 4.

Devices with both remote sensing and geo-location capabilities, including laptops and intelligent radios, will be allowed for use with the service, said Martin, as long as they employ a database of broadcast TV channels in the area so as not to interfere with them.

Power levels for devices adjacent to TV channels will be limited to 40 milliwatts. Other channels can operate at 100 milliwatts, he said.

Martin’s move is a huge setback for television broadcasters and users of wireless microphones, who had heavily lobbied the FCC and Congress to prevent the use of white space technology as a buffer against interference. Google and Microsoft, who lobbied heavily in favor of the proposal, hope to use the spectrum to deliver more affordable high-speed Internet connections to consumers.

The NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), which have both lobbied heavily against white spaces use, remained adamant in their claims of interference. David Donovan, head of MSTV, told a reporter that allowing 40 milliwatts of power on a first adjacent channel will “decimate over-the-air TV.”

The NAB said the commission’s support for unlicensed devices contradicts findings in an earlier report from the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET).

“It would appear that the FCC is misinterpreting the actual data collected by their own engineers,” said Dennis Wharton, the NAB’s executive vice president. “Any reasonable analysis of the OET report would conclude that unlicensed devices that rely solely on spectrum sensing threaten the viability of clear television reception.”

Other groups expressing concern over the interference-causing devices are sports leagues, Broadway theater groups, cable operators and networks, wireless microphone manufacturers and religious groups.

A July 2007 FCC report concluded that sample prototype white space devices did not accurately detect broadcast signals and caused interference to TV broadcasting and wireless microphones. That setback was followed by a February 2008 power failure, in which a Microsoft representative admitted that their prototype device “just stopped working.” In March, another Microsoft device “unexpectedly shut down,” according to a Microsoft press release.

However, the official FCC report concluded that “the burden of ‘proof of concept’ has been met. We are satisfied that spectrum sensing in combination with geo-location and database access techniques can be used to authorize equipment today under appropriate technical standards and that issues regarding future development and approval of any additional devices, including devices relying on sensing alone, can be addressed.”

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, applauded Martin’s proposal. “In a major victory for consumers and innovators, the FCC’s engineers are poised to give unlicensed white spaces their seal of approval,” he said. “Nearly every market in the United States has empty white spaces — in some communities, more than three-quarters of the broadcast spectrum is unused. Unlicensed devices make efficient use of the airwaves because they’re low-power and smart enough to detect and avoid other broadcasters and services.”

Martin has circulated the white space proposal to his FCC colleagues ahead of the planned Nov. 4 vote. Other FCC commissioners remained quiet on the plan as it’s clear broadcasters will stage a major fight before the vote. The NAB has asked the commission to seek public comment on the report before moving forward.