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White Spaces Update

By Ken Hamberg

The lobbying and testifying before the FCC concerning White Space access for unlicensed broadband wireless internet devices continues to intensify. Overall there seems to be a duel of words between the incumbent broadcast and audio interests versus the technology company coalitions, with the tone of the debate assuming an increasingly vitriolic character on occasion. The FCC patiently continues its WSD (White Space Device) testing procedures amidst the verbal fireworks, and though the commission has not yet approved a prototype, there's no doubt that its OET (Office of Engineering Technology) labs will be busy for quite a while. Here's a synopsis of what's been happening up there on the Hill:

The first field test by the FCC of a WSD prototype was conducted on July 16 at tree-lined Patapsco Valley State Park in Elkridge, MD. The device, made by Motorola, deploys a geolocation device and spectrum sensing. The FCC is primarily interested in the ability of the devices to detect and avoid interference with incumbent television broadcasts and wireless microphone transmissions. The field tests will be conducted through mid-August in at least twelve locales in the D.C. area, and the FCC is further entertaining a flood of invitations from organizations and venues throughout the country. The Recording Academy for example, an organization that administers major events like the Grammy Awards, invited the FCC to conduct WSD tests at the Lollapalooza music festival, which began August 1 in Chicago’s Grant Park. Sounds like RF hell to us, so it’s a great way to see how the prototypes perform in a forest of wireless microphones, particularly since some say that the current WSD prototypes exhibit detection capabilities that can be blocked by a tree.

We mentioned in last month’s White Spaces Update that the NFL had extended an invitation to the FCC to test several WSD prototypes during a pro football game at stadiums in either Baltimore or Landover in Maryland. The FCC accepted the invitation and conducted a field test at a preseason exhibition contest between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills on August 9 at FedExField in Landover. Another field test was scheduled for August 12 in New York City at Broadway’s Majestic Theater. The test at FedExField was scheduled to last from 10:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST. Two prototypes were under scrutiny, one developed by Philips and the other by the Singapore-based Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), a government-sponsored technology R&D firm. Shure’s Director of Advanced Development Edgar Riehl, who co-developed the FCC’s prototype testing standards, was there to observe the proceedings along with his colleague Mark Brunner, the subject of our interview in the July White Spaces Update.

As the FCC began its month-long (and possibly longer) round of field tests, the NAB publicly reiterated via spokesperson Kristopher Jones its skepticism regarding the long-term reliability of WSD’s and the relatively unproven detection technologies associated with them. While not against the shared use of the white spaces in principle, the NAB is now suggesting a fixed licensing system for new white space users (read WSD’s) to further protect the incumbent users (read TV and wireless microphones). They’ve also proposed auctioning off white space spectrum in the same way the reallocated spectrum blocks were auctioned earlier this year. We’ve been led from the beginning of the debate to understand that white space spectrum was completely unavailable for auction, and considering the quarter-century of symbiotic relations between the broadcast and wireless microphone industries, it should remain so.

Motorola executive Steve Shankey, an advocate of unlicensed white space access, countered that the licensing option is both impractical and counter-productive. His reasoning: There will be around 300MHz of white spaces within the reallocated television spectrum after the DTV transition, the portions of which will vary between different locales. America’s metropolises are teeming with active TV stations and incumbent users and will yield less usable spectrum than will its smaller cities and rural areas, rendering a fixed license application unfair. The subtext of the argument is that the licensing costs and paperwork involving both potential users and manufacturers will deter the propagation of and the entrepreneurial enthusiasm for the increased broadband penetration so dear to the hearts of the FCC commissioners. Motorola has developed several WSD prototypes that will be subject to field testing by the FCC.

The Wireless Innovation Alliance issued a proposal stating that although most wireless microphones currently operating in the TV band are violating FCC rules, the commission should find that permitting churches, theaters, concert venues and other rogue wireless mic operators to use the white spaces is in the best public interest. Such generosity of spirit… Guys, the incumbents have been there for about 25 years! Anybody home?

The Broadway League, a coalition representing New York City theater owners, producers, and production services issued a public statement firmly rebutting the recent Wireless Innovation Alliance’s recent proposals concerning beacon technology safeguards and FCC amnesty for illegal wireless microphone operators. The League insisted that the beacon technology is too flawed in its present form, lacking the ability to either detect the presence of or else purposely excluding many wireless microphone users, Broadway theaters included. The implication was pretty clear – a five billion dollar industry is threatened by what the League perceives to be the potential for dire and vastly increased RF interference with house wireless mic systems caused by roving internet downloaders. It appears that the theater people would rather operate in the black than go dark, if possible.

Google proposed yet another compromise, a “safe harbor” for wireless microphone users on TV channels 36, 37 and 38. Channel 37 is reserved for medical telemetry and radio astronomy use. As we noted in last month’s issue, telemetry giant GE Healthcare had accepted in principle the operation on adjacent channels 36 and 38 of WSD’s equipped with emission-reducing masks, very publicly exhibiting confidence that the lower-power broadband internet devices and Uncle Louie’s heart monitor could coexist without interference in adjacent spectrum. They never mentioned wireless microphones or any other wireless devices. This is a safe harbor? On what planet? Hey Google, these guys are on your side. Nice way to treat your friends.

On July 30 in a letter to the FCC’s Chairman Kevin Martin, a consortium of church groups known as the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) weighed in on the white spaces debate with surprising vehemence. The NRB expressed righteous concern about the potential disruption of their wireless microphones during religious services, sermons and other church-related functions by under-regulated WSD’s operating in shared spectrum. The NRB letter was absolutely adamant that it is the responsibility of the FCC to ensure that the prospective broadband devices will operate flawlessly, stating uncategorically that allowing inferior products to enter the market place would rank among the greatest technical blunders in U.S. history. Rock on, Father!

See you next month as we lurch onward toward February, 2009.


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