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FCC OKs TV-Band White-Space For Broadband, Networking

11/05/2008 12:23:00 PM Eastern

Washington - The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to open up unused TV-band spectrum for wireless-Internet access by unlicensed fixed, mobile and portable devices and for any other application that industry can devise, including wireless home networking, device-to-device communication and video services.

The devices, which could hit the market in two years, would use TV-band “white spaces,” or portions of the TV-band spectrum not occupied by a TV station in a given market. The unused spectrum, which occupies current VHF and UHF spectrum, is prized for its ability to transmit signals over a long range and through walls. The propagation characteristics mean large markets could be covered with only a handful of base stations.

The decision creates the potential for low-cost wide-area Wi-Fi-like services to compete with cellular carriers who offer mobile broadband in spectrum that they had to purchase. The services would also compete with existing broadband providers to the home and potentially bring broadband access to rural areas where the cost of building a landline network is high.

“Opening the white spaces will allow for the creation of a Wi-Fi on steroids,” said FCC chairman Kevin Martin. “Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they may have only dreamed about before. 

Unlicensed use of white space, said commissioner Robert McDowell, “will give nimble entrepreneurs the freedom to disrupt the market in positive and constructive ways that will force incumbents to keep pace with this new revolution.” The competition “will knock down barriers created by walled gardens and pry open closed networks,” he continued, referring to cellular carrier control over the applications that many of their handsets can use. “This liberation will come about not through increased regulation, but through increased competition.”

The measure, under consideration for about six years, was endorsed by technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, but opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), makers of wireless microphones, and wireless-industry association CTIA, whose carrier members paid for their licensed spectrum. The NAB fears the unlicensed devices will interfere with the reception of over-the-air TV signals in homes. Wireless-phone makers, whose devices already use white-space spectrum, also fear that the portable and mobile devices will interfere with the use of their products in commercial venues, such as stadiums and Broadway theaters.

To reduce the potential for such interference, the FCC imposed multiple requirements on devices, including two types of sensing technologies in the first generation of devices. The technologies would enable devices to find spectrum not in use. One technology combines GPS geo-location with a database of locations of TV stations, cable-operator head ends, wireless-mike venues and other current users of the spectrum. The database will tell the space device what spectrum it can use from its current location.

During the FCC's eight-month lab and field tests, a Motorola device using the GPS/database solution “was 100 percent successful in identifying television signals and preventing interference,” Motorola said.

The second technology mandate is signal-sensing technology, enabling a device to listen to the airwaves to sense transmissions from TV stations and other incumbent users. In tests, the FCC’s Office of Engineering Technology concluded that signal-sensing technology by itself was not completely effective in eliminating interference.

Devices incorporating only signal-sensing technology will be allowed in the future only if they undergo “a much more rigorous approval process,” said Martin. These devices will be tested by the FCC in the lab and in a variety of real-world environments, the public will be allowed to comment on the findings, and the full FCC will vote to approve it, the chairman said.

Commenting on the testing process prior to the vote, David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television said: “The commission chose a path that imperils America’s television reception in order to satisfy the `free’ spectrum demands of Google and Microsoft. Previous statements from the New America Foundation’s Michael Calabrese outlined the game plan: ‘Take TV off the air. Over-the-air broadcasts should be replaced entirely by cable, satellite, and Internet viewing.’ ”

“White spaces proponents stated they plan to increase interfering power levels until they achieve this objective,” Donovan continued. “Google lobbied the FCC on Oct. 31 asking for more power. Their game has begun.”

In making its decision, the FCC imposed power limits on devices. Power output is limited to 40 milliwatts, or less than that of wireless mikes, when they operate in a channel immediately next to a broadcast channel, said commissioner Deborah Tate. A higher power limit applies when the device operates in a channel that’s not next to a TV channel.

Although the FCC’s technology office tried to establish power limits to lower the risk of interference with home devices such as cable boxes, Tate noted, “this risk is not, in my mind, fully mitigated.” She noted, however, that “we have all learned to move devices away from each other.”

All devices, she noted, must be tested by the FCC to demonstrate “proof in practice,” Tate noted.

For its part, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) said it “applauds the commission’s efforts to increase the availability of wireless broadband to American consumers” and said it “will work with all stakeholders to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to enable the proliferation of new wireless broadband services and devices without interfering with consumers’ enjoyment of digital television programming."

CEA members include Google and TV makers.

The NAB, however, isn’t so sanguine. “While we appreciate the FCC’s attempt to address significant issues raised by broadcasters and others, every American who values interference-free TV should be concerned by the commission’s vote,” said NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton. “By moving the white space vote forward, the commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television.”

In other matters, the FCC:

  •  approved Alltel’s acquisition by Verizon Wireless, which must sell off wireless equipment in 100 U.S. markets.

Allowed the transfer of spectrum licenses held by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire to a new company called New Clearwire, which will build a nationwide WiMAX network.

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