FCC Opens Taboo TV Channels

The FCC officially opened taboo TV channels at its regular monthly meeting Oct. 12. The commission unanimously approved a First Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to allow "fixed low-power devices" to operate on unused TV channels. Mobile devices and licensing provisions will undergo further scrutiny.

The R&O represents the first time consumer devices will be permitted mass deployment in unused TV channels. In each television market, which may have from six to 20 TV stations, at least one channel is left fallow between each station's channel assignment to prevent the signals from interfering with one another. Hence, the notion of unused TV channels--considered taboo for TV use, but referred to as "white space" by those who want that spectrum available for personal devices.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, mindful of the potential effect on TV stations, issued this statement in response to the order and further notice:

"In the past, I have expressed that our first priority is furthering the digital transition and minimizing the burden on viewers... the final DTV channel selection and assignment process is still ongoing, which makes it more difficult to assess the amount of white space that might ultimately be available. Now that Congress has established a 'hard date' for the DTV transition, however, the commission should resolve outstanding technical issues so that low-power devices designed to operate on unused TV frequencies may be placed on the market with the completion of the DTV transition."

After analog TV transmitters go dark on that hard date, Feb. 17, 2009, TV signals will reside on channels 2 through 36 and 38 through 51. Channel 37 is reserved for astronomy and medical telemetry, and thus excluded in the R&O (according to the news release describing the order, which was not yet available at press time).

The FNPRM will seek more information on several items raised since the original Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued in May 2004. Primary among those is whether or not to allow mobile low-power devices in the TV spectrum. Broadcasters are particularly wary of mobile devices because unlicensed, portable FM transmitters are already wreaking havoc with licensed radio signals. Another item left open to debate is the questioning of licensing.

At the inception of the 2004 notice, it was presumed that spectrum for the low-power, 100 mW devices in question would be unlicensed, and essentially, free. Since then, however, pressure for licensing has increased--particularly after the advanced wireless spectrum auction last month raised $14 billion. The commission said it wants to see "comments on the relative benefits" of both approaches, however both Democratic commissioners leaned against licensing.

"While I am more than happy to give careful consideration to comments from those who favor licensed use of the white spaces, I would have preferred that today's item announce a rebuttable presumption in favor of unlicensed use," said Commissioner Michael Copps in his statement.

In his statement, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, "I want to specifically express my preference for use of this spectrum on an unlicensed basis. Unlicensed services, with their low barriers to entry, present such a great opportunity for the deployment of broadband offerings in communities across the country no matter their size or financial status."

Copps noted the crux of opening TV white space is broadband deployment. He said the country was in "the midst of a broadband crisis," and that it ranked 15th in the world in broadband penetration. At the same time, he called for technical standards that would protect broadcast signals from interference.

"As with so much of the commission's work, the devil is in the details. I will be watching closely to make sure that we strike the appropriate balance between innovation and caution," he said.

On the side of caution, the R&O at hand banishes mobile devices from channels 14 through 20 because those channels are used for public safety in at least 13 cities. However, the further notice asks whether fixed low-power transmitters should be allowed in those frequencies.

The FNPRM invites comment on whether any type of low-power devices should be permitted on channels 2 through 4, which are commonly used to interface TVs with VCRs. It also makes "detailed technical proposals to facilitate the use of a dynamic frequency selection mechanism to ensure that TV band devices operate only on vacant TV channels." This refers to so-called "smart" technologies that sniff out unused TV channels. Further comment is also invited on geo-location and "control signal interference avoidance."

The commission invited the submission of outside test results, and reaffirmed that it would continue its own interference tests.

The Oct. 12 R&O and further notice represents the first action in a timetable established by the FCC last month to move the white spaces docket, No. 04-186. Comments on the FNPRM will be due in roughly three months, according to an FCC staffer. The next item in the timetable is a report on the interference rejection capability of DTV receivers, due next March. Then in July 2007, test results on interference from the devices themselves will be issued. A year from now, the FCC intends to adopt a second R&O specifying final technical requirements for low-power devices designed to operate in TV spectrum; and in December, the commission will begin accepting applications for certification.

The gizmos will then go on sale in February of 2009, when analog broadcast signals are no more.