Saving The Spectrum—An Industry Call To Arms

On October 12, 2006, the FCC adopted its First Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with respect to “Unlicensed Operation in the TV Broadcast Bands.”

“Our goal in this proceeding is to allow such devices to operate on unused television channels in locations where such operations will not result in harmful interference to TV and other authorized services,” explained the FCC’s First Order. “We believe that this plan will provide for more efficient and effective use of the TV spectrum and will significantly benefit the public by allowing the development of new and innovative types of devices and services for businesses and consumers, without disrupting television and other authorized services using the TV bands.

“We will further consider whether appropriate provisions can be developed to permit low power personal/portable devices to operate in this spectrum without causing harmful interference,” the FCC document continued. “The final rules we adopt will allow the marketing of TV band devices to commence on February 18, 2009, after the transition to DTV service is complete and all TV stations are in operation on their permanent DTV channels.”

Let’s put this in non-Washington-speak: Unlicensed wireless devices will gain access to TV “white spaces” in 2009. All that remains to be worked out are the specifics, in order to prevent interference with nearby TV signals.

Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) president David L. Donovan is anything but happy about the FCC’s conclusions. The reason: “It is our concern—backed by research—that the rule as proposed could lead to significant interference to analog and most importantly to digital television from unlicensed devices operating in the TV bands,” Donovan told TVB. Even with the FCC-mandated Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) technologies such devices must employ to detect and avoid over-the-air TV broadcasts, MSTV’s analysis has shown that “the interference to digital TV is significant,” he said. “DFS has never been tested in the TV band and most evidence indicates it cannot work in the TV band,” Donovan explained. “The [digital] pictures freeze and the sound goes out.”

If DFS fails to work properly, Donovan said that an unlicensed device could interfere with DTV televisions and set-top boxes for thousands of feet. “Placing these devices on a first adjacent channel could cause interference for up to 2,500 feet,” he added. “Finally, the FCC’s current out-of-band interference rules will not work.”

However, for the Big Four IT proponents of this FCC rule—Dell, HP, Intel and Microsoft—the FCC’s First Report is great news. “I’m delighted,” said Ed Thomas, former FCC chief engineer and now a partner/policy advisor at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, the law firm that represents the Big Four before the FCC. Small wonder: Thomas’ clients went to the FCC seeking “the authority to use the unused TV spectrum for unlicensed communications,” Thomas told TVB, “and now the FCC has ruled that the white spaces can indeed be used for this purpose.”

To illustrate how unlicensed devices can interfere with TV reception, MSTV has posted a streaming video called Your Neighbor’s Static on its website ( It has also posted a white paper under the heading Harming the DTV Transition: Why Unlicensed Use of Vacant TV Spectrum Will Cause Interference to DTV Viewers. This paper was written as a rebuttal to the New America Foundation’s (NAF) white paper, Why Unlicensed Use of Vacant TV Spectrum Will Not Interfere With Television Reception.

In its white paper, MSTV cited research conducted on its behalf by Canada’s Communications Research Centre (CRC). “The CRC tests showed that unlicensed devices, complying with the FCC’s proposed out-of-band emission limits, could cause interference to DTV sets at distances up to 78 feet and interference to analog TV sets up to 452 feet,” stated the MSTV white paper. “A second and subsequent report was completed in February 2005. This study confirms MSTV’s and CRC’s original findings that the proposed FCC limits for out-of-band emissions are not adequate and harmful interference would be caused to TV reception.”

So how bad is the problem? Under the proposed FCC rule, “the first adjacent channel [to an on-air TV broadcaster] probably cannot be used by unlicensed wireless devices without causing interference,” said Dr. Yiyan Wu, the CRC’s principal research scientist. “The second and higher adjacent channels may be usable, but the FCC’s proposed emission mask (dated May 2004) needs to be substantially tightened on those channels.”

Speaking on behalf of the Dell/HP/Intel/Microsoft group, Ed Thomas sympathized with the broadcasters’ fears about interference, but told TVB that “the protections they say are necessary are—in our judgment—vastly exaggerated and go way beyond what TV broadcasters are entitled to under their licenses.”

Not surprisingly, Thomas’ doubts were echoed by Marjorie Dickman, Intel’s senior attorney for government affairs. According to Dickman, what’s really at play here is that “the broadcasters have had near-exclusive access to the spectrum for a very long time, and they would like to keep it that way.”

“What’s happening here is a classic spectrum management battle between the haves and have-nots,” said Dr. Michael Marcus, a 25 year FCC spectrum policy veteran gone private (as director of Marcus Spectrum Solutions) and coauthor of the NAF’s aforementioned white paper. “From the point of view of the haves, there is nothing to be gained by letting more have-nots in,” Marcus explained, “especially when the have-nots might end up competing with the haves.”

As for the veracity of the CRC’s tests, which underlie MSTV’s arguments against the FCC’s proposals? “I am involved in an effort at Kansas University to replicate these tests, and most importantly to quantify them,” Marcus said. “We need to know how much unlicensed power is necessary close to the TV receiver to generate the results cited by the CRC.”

With the FCC allowing unlicensed wireless devices into TV’s white spaces, broadcasters’ best hope is to influence the standards that the rule will be based on. These include the all-important DFS detection threshold, which is the minimum signal level that will tell a wireless device to stay off a specific TV channel.

Not surprisingly, broadcasters want such standards to be very stringent. It’s not just a matter of protecting their own signals, explained North American Broadcasters Association (NABA) secretary general David Baylor: If the noise level is allowed to get too high within the white spaces due to lax regulation, then problems will arise for all users, not just broadcasters. “The usual charge made against us is that ‘you guys are saying no because you don’t want anyone playing in your sandbox,’” Baylor said. “Our concern is that people will end up ‘taking sand out of the sandbox’ so that no one can play.”

“It’s not that we want to stop new technology,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s EVP of media relations. “We just don’t want it to interfere with our signals.” As proof of their good intentions, NAB, MSTV and networks such as CBS and Fox have been working closely with the IEEE’s 802.22 Working Group on Wireless Regional Area Networks (, to develop a standard “for use by license-exempt devices on a non-interfering basis in spectrum that is allocated to the TV Broadcast Service,” according to the Working Group.

Still, even if the 802.22 Working Group does manage to come up with a standard, the FCC is not compelled to adopt it, said Thomas. In fact, it would be a mistake for the FCC to regulate this spectrum using an IEEE standard, he said, rather than developing its own rule to allow for multiple wireless platforms. “With an IEEE standard, it’s like being told that all you can speak is English,” Thomas told TVB. “With an FCC rule, you are allowed to speak English, French, Italian or whatever language that works for you, as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else.”

One thing is certain: The clock is ticking. Under FCC rules, broadcasters and all other interested parties have until January 31, 2007 to put in their comments, and until March 2, 2007 to file any reply comments. After that, it’s up to the FCC to finalize the details, before unlicensed wireless devices start using the white spaces sometime shortly after February 18, 2009.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at