Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right...

If television spectrum were an organism, it might be a goldfish in a tank full of pike--not exactly safe. A couple more pike hit the water this week, with the FCC's proposal to let more players into the TV spectrum, and a public policy group's call to drop the tuner mandate and take back the transitional spectrum by 2008.

The FCC today issued a preliminary edict to allow the operation of more unlicensed devices in the unused TV frequency bands, i.e., the 6-Mhz cushion necessary to prevent interference between adjacent analog channels. Several devices such as wireless microphones, headsets, keyboards and medical telemetry equipment have been functioning in this cushion spectrum for many years. Hence the chaos in Dallas at the Baylor Medical Center a few years ago when WFAA-DT started transmitting a digital signal in the unused channel.

What the FCC is exploring with this current procedure is to allow the creation of WiFi networks in the cushion spectrum. The gist of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or NPRM as its known in legal-speak, does not diverge radically from the Notice of Inquiry, or NOI, issued on the subject in December, 2002. The one key point that stands out is that the commission is calling for the use of smart receivers designed to dynamically seek out unused spectrum.

"In order to ensure that no interference is caused to TV stations and their viewers, the Commission proposed to require unlicensed devices to incorporate 'smart radio' features to identify unused TV channels," an FCC release stated. "The Commission believes that by carefully tailoring this initiative to protect incumbent television service, it provides a balanced proposal for the American public, for WISPs and for television station operators. These proposals also have the potential to provide benefits to broadcasters as well, as they may facilitate the provision of interactive TV services."

The NPRM suggests two classifications for unlicensed broadband devices that could be used in the TV bands--"personal/portable," for things like WiFi laptop cards; and higher-power "fixed/access," for such things as wireless broadband Internet provider transmitters.

"Different interference avoidance requirements are proposed for these two different types of unlicensed broadband applications," the FCC statement said. "These proposals should provide flexibility to permit a wide range of unlicensed broadband uses and applications and ensure that the most appropriate and effective mechanisms are in place to limit such unlicensed use to only unused TV channels."

Despite assurances to the contrary, broadcasters are primarily concerned about the potential for interference, especially since few have made their digital channel assignment selection. (Those stations with analog and digital allocations in the core channels, 2-51, may choose between the two.) WiFi is basically noise to a television signal, and not much of a problem in the higher channels. Some interference has, however, been detected in Channels 2-5. And while it may be argued that broadcasters at analog Channels 2-5 can simply select their higher channel assignment, not all are in the core. For example, WCBS-TV in New York is on Channel 2., while WCBS-DT is on Channel 56.

Edward O. Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters was predictably underjoyed.

"We have serious concerns that the introduction of unlicensed devices into the television band could result in unforeseen interference in broadcast service to millions of television viewers," he said. "Free, over-the-air television provides invaluable news, information and entertainment to local communities all over America and serves as a lifeline to citizens in times of crisis. We will work with the FCC to ensure that this proposal can be accommodated while preserving interference-free over-the-air television."

FCC Chairman Michael Powell and two of his colleagues at the commission congratulated themselves on adding that smart-receiver bit.
"Today's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes a smart solution," said an apparently adjectivally bereft Powell, also in a statement. "The Commission takes a hard look at the use of unlicensed devices operating on unused broadcast television spectrum in conjunction with smart radio technology. This technology has the potential to provide greater service to the American public. It promises to dramatically increase the availability and quality of wireless Internet connections--the equivalent of doubling the number of lanes on a congested highway."
Commissioners Michael Copps and Kevin Martin also weighed in with their own statements on how brilliant the agency was to consider potential interference from a receiver standpoint.
John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations said broadcasters would kind of like to get their channel assignment out of the way before the FCC starts allowing newcomers to transmit in the adjacent channels.

Lawson made the comment after appearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, where the New America Foundation (NAF) held a widely promoted luncheon to unveil their own analog return plan.

The Foundation would have the FCC ditch the tuner mandate, buy everybody a receiver box who didn't have one and start auctioning returned spectrum in 2006. Another participant from the Manhattan Institute was for eliminating broadcast TV altogether and auctioning off all the spectrum, Lawson said.

"I felt like I was the voice of reason," he said. "Why would you be so quick to throw away the last locally controlled media, the last place for diverse voices?"

The proposal is loosely based on the process administered in Berlin by the Media Institute of Berlin-Brandenberg. However, whereas in Berlin, the government distributed 6,000 digital set-top converters to only the poorest households, the NAF would have the government here issue a $50 tax credit for anyone who buys a box with a tuner in it, including cable and DBS boxes. (Assuming the credit does actually apply to everyone, Comcast President and CEO Brian Roberts could create himself a tax credit of around $1 billion. Assuming he needs it.)

There were several misconceptions in the NAF proposal, not the least of which was a statement that "every American could be receiving TV signals over the current allocation of high-frequency DBS spectrum."

More misleading, however, was the statement about the tuner mandate that no consumer will be able to purchase a TV without paying the dreaded "tuner tax," when in reality, the mandate only applies to televisions with built-in NTSC tuners. Therefore, the actual number of consumers who will be forced to pay this so-called tuner tax is zero.