White space debate resumes on Capitol Hill

Members of the Wireless Innovation Alliance were on Capitol Hill today touting the possibilities of opening up underused slices of the broadcast spectrum known as white space for broadband Internet access.

Google co-founder Larry Page was a featured speaker at the midday event, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He talked about the consumer and economic benefits of what Google has referred to as Wi-Fi on steroids. The scheme would allow approved devices to use what advocates call unused portions of the TV broadcast spectrum for high-speed Internet access.

The problem is white space is not unused. It is a buffer between TV broadcast channels, and although not used by TV, it is used by a variety of low-power devices such as wireless microphones. Current users of those devices ' including churches, the professional audio companies that work with the Grand Ole Opry and on Broadway, the drivers at Watkins Glen International racetrack, and quarterbacks on Soldier Field ' say they could be squeezed out if the bands are opened to new uses.

At least two lawmakers were not moved by the Wireless Innovation Alliance's proposal and have come out in favor of NASCAR and Nashville.

'The Federal Communications Commission must ensure that wireless microphones are protected from harmful interference from devices like the ones being touted by a number of technology companies,' Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a prepared statement. "We can all agree that FCC policy should foster innovation and encourage the efficient use of public airwaves, but new changes must not come at the expense of wireless microphones, which provide an important public good.'

Radio frequency spectrum policy is going through a major realignment as most TV stations are being required to move to digital signals as of February 2009. Although broadcasters are being squeezed into a narrower band, the more spectrally efficient digital signals will leave plenty of room ' theoretically ' for new devices and services in the white-space buffers between channels.

Anticipating the transition to digital TV, FCC proposed new rules in 2004 for the use of 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, new unlicensed broadband operations may provide synergy with traditional broadcast operations and offer broadcasters the opportunity to provide new services,' the rules state.

The change could also open new channels for wireless Internet service providers, who could then provide economical broadband access to remote areas now underserved by ISPs. That is the dream the alliance is pitching to lawmakers. But it would depend on the ability of new devices to efficiently detect existing users in the white space and move to other channels to avoid interference.

Unfortunately, prototype devices were not up to snuff in FCC tests earlier this year, although the technology does appear to be feasible. Opponents of white-space broadband are not willing to share the spectrum with ISPs until the technology is effective, not just feasible.

'That's why a real diversity of groups ' including the National Religious Broadcasters, churches across the nation, [National Football League], NASCAR, Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Association, Broadway, Cirque du Soleil and the MGM Grand have all come together to ask the FCC not to pull the plug on wireless microphone users everywhere," Cooper and Maloney said in their statement.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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