Telcos Flex Muscle on Hill

NAB survey sheds light on use of unlicensed devices in white spaces


The high-profile aspects of telecom reform continued to overshadow the element that could wreak havoc in the broadcast industry early this month. Opening unused channels in the TV spectrum took a backseat to the double marquee issues of video franchising and network neutrality.

The latter of the two held up telecom reform in the Senate, while the former remained the impetus.

Verizon has been particularly aggressive about pushing for nationwide video franchising rather than cutting deals with local governments like cable operators do. The telcos have testified it would take them decades to hammer out deals with individual municipalities, which are often accused of making unreasonable stipulations.

By way of illustration, a lawsuit over video franchising broke out in an upscale Washington, D.C. bedroom community over the July 4th Congressional recess. Verizon sued Montgomery County, Md. in U.S. District Court over what the telco termed "numerous unlawful demands that have stymied the negotiations."

Among other things, Verizon claimed the county asked for 65 PEG (public, education and government) channels, regulatory authority over the telco's fiber infrastructure, and a bucket of cash.

The lawsuit asked the court to strip out the bells and whistles and force Montgomery County to close a franchise deal within 60 days.

Montgomery County Council Vice President Marilyn Praisner said Verizon had yet to submit a franchise application at the time of the suit.

"This lawsuit is not really about Montgomery County. It is Verizon's attempt to influence federal legislation," she said. "It is about eradicating the role of local government, the government closest to the people, and our efforts to protect consumers and our local rights-of-way."


The power of the telcos on Capitol Hill is hardly a secret. They pretty much got what they wanted in the telecom reform bill passed by the House that's predominantly comprised of national franchising parameters.

The companion Senate bill was much more of a mishmash, and met with much more resistance. Days after the bill was reported out of the Commerce Committee in late June, cities attacked it for prohibiting new cell phone service and Internet taxes, and for allowing telcos to cherry-pick wealthy neighborhoods.

Within the Senate itself, the fur flew over network neutrality. Hours after Commerce passed the bill 15-7, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) placed a hold on it because it didn't prohibit broadband service providers from creating speed lanes, the concept otherwise known as "network neutrality."

The camp pushing for network neutrality say it would preserve the status quo of the Internet, while opponents believe it would stifle further investment in the broadband infrastructure. Up until the Supreme Court Brand X decision of a year ago, broadband-specifically, cable modem service-was classified as "telecommunications" and thus subject to open access regulations. Brand X reclassified it as an information service, giving broadband providers the power to prioritize content.

Network neutrality has generated the greatest polemics of the entire Senate telecom package, which includes items ranging from phone subsidies for active duty military personnel to a broadcast flag blessing and steeper fines for Internet kiddie porn.


Also tucked within the 10 titles of the bill is legislation that would open up unused broadcast spectrum for unlicensed devices.

"It's disastrous," said Dennis Wallace of the engineering firm Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace. "But that's not unprecedented. When Congress gets into spectrum issues, it's disastrous."

MSW's clients include the NAB and the Association of Maximum Service TV (MSTV). Recent tests conducted for the NAB suggested a majority of the unlicensed devices now used in the FM band-iPod and MP3 transmitters, for example-do not comply with FCC regulations.

"There's clearly a precedent that the enforcement bureau doesn't enforce the rules," Wallace said.

No members of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed opposition to the legislation, entitled the Wireless Innovation Networks, or WIN Act. In the space of three pages, WIN 1) opens up all unused broadcast channels, including first adjacents, for unlicensed devices; 2) and puts the burden of proving interference on individual broadcasters; and 3) offers no interference protection for translators and low power TV stations.

"The translator guys are very concerned because it would only protect channels within the station contour," Wallace said. "Some cable headends pick up channels from 100 miles away. It's not just a broadcaster problem."

MSTV chief David Donovan has been feverishly working Capitol Hill to get the language in the bill refined. As it stands, he said, the legislation has strayed radically from its original intent-to extend wireless broadband networks into underserved, mostly rural areas.

"This is not a rural broadband bill," Donovan said. "This allows all kinds of devices into the spectrum. Why should a $29 toy interfere with a $2,000 television set?"

Wallace found the whole rural WiFi rationale a bit dodgy because "it would cost an astronomical amount of money," he said.

However, Kevin Kahn of Intel told Congress that opening TV spectrum would make rural WiFi or WiMAX economically feasible.

"Given its propagation characteristics, the TV white spaces could be particularly useful in rural areas," he testified. "In contrast, we estimate that the 2.5 GHz frequencies would require approximately four times as many base stations to achieve equal geographic area coverage."

Both Kahn and Craig Mundie of Microsoft said using spectrum for last-mile connections to homes is cheaper than digging acres of trenches for wires. Both also noted that unlicensed devices designed for the TV spectrum will be "smart," either detecting unused channels or downloading the information from a database.

Thomas Lenard of the Progress and Freedom Foundation is one of few people asking why government doesn't auction off white spaces.

"It is... extremely disappointing that Congress, supported by a large part of the technology industry that apparently believes it will sell more products in an unlicensed regime, is now proposing to take a big step backward by allocating a significant chunk of 'beachfront' spectrum-the TV broadcast spectrum white space-to 'unlicensed' uses. This is the polar opposite of a market-allocation regime," Lenard wrote in a policy paper entitled, "Why Don't We Just Auction the 'White Space'?"

The pending legislation would open white spaces 270 days after passage, if the bill gets that far. Wyden's hold does not prevent the bill from coming to a floor vote, but it does mean it can't be passed without debate, which presents the opportunity for a filibuster. Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and his allies would need to garner 60 votes to block a filibuster. Following the June committee vote, Stevens said he would "find out what members would vote for it if something were taken out."