A fight over 'white space'

FCC working on rules to reallocate airwaves after digital TV transition

A proposal to allow new uses of TV white space ' unused portions of the radio frequency spectrum between channels allocated to TV broadcasters ' is pitting information technology and communications giants such as Microsoft, Google and Motorola against strange bedfellows such as Broadway and NASCAR.

The professional audio industry now uses that spectrum for wireless microphones in musical and theatrical performances and sporting events. But the Federal Communications Commission has proposed rewriting the rules to allow new types of unlicensed devices to use the spectrum after television makes its move to digital in February 2009.

A coalition of Nashville-based music interests earlier this month told FCC that crowding more devices into the limited space being left by the digital TV transition could be a catastrophe for live music venues. It urged the commission to be cautious and not approve new types of devices until adequate safeguards are available to protect current users.

'We think this is a critical time' in the rulemaking process, said Mark Brunner, senior director of industry relations at Shure, a maker of wireless microphones. 'We see a high potential for interference.'

Other equipment manufacturers and service providers see a high potential for new products and markets.

U.S. RF spectrum usage is going through a major realignment as most TV stations are required to begin using only digital signals in February. The more spectrally efficient digital signals will free up the 700 MHz band now used by broadcasters, and licenses for commercial use of much of that band were auctioned earlier this year. A 10 MHz block set aside for public safety use failed to attract a winning bid; FCC is revisiting how to license that block.

Although broadcasters are being squeezed into a narrower band, the digital signals will leave plenty of room ' theoretically ' for new devices and services in the white-space buffers between channels. But other current users, such as the professional audio companies who are miking performers at the Grand Ole Opry and on Broadway, the NASCAR drivers at Watkins Glen raceway and quarterbacks in the National Football League, are being squeezed.

'We were able to go up to 802 MHz,' Brunner said. Now that they are losing part of their RF real estate, 'what remains becomes more critical.'

Anticipating the DTV transition, FCC in 2004 proposed new rules for the use of this white space that would provide 'more efficient and effective use of the TV spectrum and would have significant benefits for the public by allowing the development of new and innovative types of unlicensed broadband devices and services for businesses and consumers. Further[more], new unlicensed broadband operations may provide synergy with traditional broadcast operations and offer broadcasters the opportunity to provide new services.'

It also could allow new channels for wireless Internet service providers, providing economical broadband access to remote areas now underserved by ISPs.

Fixed, permanent wireless broadband services are not a real concern to those already using the spectrum, Brunner said. Those facilities would be easy to locate and work around. What the wireless mike users fear are small, portable, high-density personal devices enabling a new generation of mobile Internet access and communications services. These could be anything from laptop PCs to smart wireless phones or other devices not yet envisioned.

FCC and industry are conducting tests of prototypes, and FCC has suggested in its notice of proposed rulemaking that the devices should include technology to identify TV channels not being used locally. But there are no specifications for the technology, and that would not address the use of that spectrum by other unlicensed devices such as microphones.

FCC originally had hoped to complete its new rulemaking by October 2007 so that new devices could receive approval and be on the market by February 2009, but that schedule has slipped. Current users of the spectrum would rather see the February deadline missed than have to fight on the stage and playing field for every megahertz of spectrum.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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