FCC’s Martin Offers Election Day Surprise: White Space Battle Goes To Vote

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Google CEO Larry Page may have been right that the White Space tests were rigged. However, it doesn’t matter.

Even though FCC Office of Engineering (OET) test results that found that White Space devices could not reliably detect TV and wireless-microphone signals, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is moving forward with a vote on Nov. 4. If he can get the support of two FCC commissioners, unlicensed wireless consumer devices could eventually come to White Space spectrum near you.

Concern is mounting.

“The fact that FCC Chairman Martin concluded that these devices could be used without interfering with broadcast signals when the devices failed in testing proves that, no matter what happens, the FCC does not have the best interest of broadcasters and the general public at heart,” says Kurt Heitmann, SVP of sales and marketing for Red House, parent company of CP Communications and Total RF, two industry-leading wireless-systems providers.

White Space, the spectrum between over-the-air TV signals, serves as a buffer zone to prevent the TV signals from interfering with each other. Consumer-advocate groups, consumer-electronics manufacturers, and such companies as Google and Microsoft view the spectrum as wide open and available to be used to deliver a host of wireless services, including broadband to rural areas not served by DSL or cable companies.

For more than 30 years, the spectrum has been home to tens of thousands of wireless-microphone and -communication systems: the microphones used by broadcasters to cover sporting events, NFL coach-to-QB communication systems, the PGA’s ShotLink system integral to scoring and analysis, the NBA system linking referee whistles with game clocks, and much, much, more.

Holding the vote on Nov. 4, Election Day, is a shrewd move and, for conspiracy theorists and opponents, not a coincidence. Any controversial orders will be lost in the noise of post-election coverage in Washington.

It also gives those concerned about wireless integrity a very short window for action.

“We urge any members of the sports-TV-production and league community who rely on wireless-microphone technology to contact the FCC commissioners, congressmen, and senators and make clear that allowing these devices into the spectrum is a terrible idea,” says Paul Gallo, SVG executive director. “First, the sensing technology that these devices will rely on does not work, and that has been proven time and again in the tests. Second, the rumored plans to set aside two channels for wireless-microphone use are insufficient to meet the needs of the community.”

Industry professionals concerned about the future of White Space integrity have until Oct. 28 to contact FCC commissioners. When it comes to effective lobbying, phone calls are the best bet, according to DC insiders. Higher-level executives, even athletes or on-air talent, can increase effectiveness. Most important, they should be specific about what should happen rather than voice general unhappiness.

No one has seen the wording of the order, but it is expected to include some fig-leaf protection of wireless microphones, most likely just enough to allow those who support the order to tell critics that wireless protection is part of the plan.

Chairman Martin says that portable devices will have spectrum-sensing technology. However, that technology has yet to be proved in either laboratory or field tests. Also, sensing technology is useful only if it can find not only the frequencies in use at the moment they are turned on but also what frequencies are used throughout a given event. For example, a frequency set aside for a halftime show needs to be protected from a fan in the stands’ settling into that frequency during the first half of a football game.

In terms of protection, Martin proposes a geolocation database that would list every sports venue and facility (as well as theaters, soundstages, government buildings, etc.) and allow microphone users to register in that database. However, it is unclear who would maintain the database, how it would be tied in with unlicensed consumer devices, and how frequently it would be updated.

“The issue for sporting events is whether the database includes all sporting venues in the U.S. and how much protection it offers,” says David Donovan, president of Maximum Services Television (MSTV).

Martin also proposes that the devices operate at 100 mW when used in frequencies that are not co-located next to a TV signal. When they are co-located, operation is limited to 40 mW. However, again, it is unclear how the device will know it is operating in co-channel frequencies.

Says Donovan, “We’re concerned that allowing those devices on adjacent channels will cause interference to DTV and cable-television viewing.”