Cable Joins 'White' Fight


The cable industry, concerned a change in federal spectrum policy could result in fuzzy TV pictures, is seeking a postponement on the use of portable wireless broadband devices on empty broadcast TV channels.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to vote Nov. 4 to approve new uses of the so-called TV white spaces — vacant spectrum used as a buffer to prevent the collision of adjacent TV-station signals.

Cable operators and TV stations claim the agency's plan would introduce devices that would, despite operating at low power, disrupt TV viewing in both cable and broadcast-only homes.

“This is frankly inexplicable,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association senior vice president of law and regulatory policy Daniel Brenner said in a letter sent last Monday to the FCC. “We urge the [FCC] not to rush to a decision that would ignore the unique and proven hazards of such devices to cable-television viewers.”

For years, the FCC has been studying whether low-power portable broadband devices can operate in the white spaces without producing harmful interference to TV signals.

Big-name technology firms, including Google and Microsoft, claim a new FCC engineering study supports the view that white spaces can be occupied without crippling incumbent services.

It appears as if opponents will need to seek a judicial remedy as Republican FCC member Robert McDowell all but predicted the FCC would usher in a new era.

“I'm very optimistic. I think this could be a 5-to-0 vote,” McDowell told Reuters in a comment confirmed later by his office. The FCC has three Republicans and two Democrats.

The NCTA insisted that the FCC's current plan would disrupt service in cable homes and interfere with the reception of TV signals at rural cable headends, central offices where TV signals are received and processed. The NCTA asked the FCC to put out the engineering study for public comment.

“We are troubled that the [FCC] is prepared to adopt a final rule without formally seeking public comment on a major technical study,” Brenner's letter said.

The National Association of Broadcasters has assembled a diverse coalition opposed to the FCC's proposal, including federal and state lawmakers, sports leagues, hotel-casino owners, and wireless Internet-service providers (WISPs).

Even country music star Dolly Parton wrote in support of the NAB's position, claiming exploitation of the white spaces could disrupt concerts and performances where singers and actors use wireless microphones already operating in the broadcast-TV band.

“With my extensive background in the entertainment industry, I can unequivocally confirm that the importance of clear, consistent wireless-microphone broadcasts simply cannot be overstated,” Parton wrote Oct. 24.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is advocating use of the white spaces under conditions he says will protect incumbents from harmful interference.

Brenner's letter said cable consumers who experience interference from a nearby white-spaces device won't know whether the problem is with their cable service or with their TV sets. A consumer who pinpointed the problem as stemming from a neighbor's white-spaces device wouldn't have a ready solution, he added, because the neighbor wouldn't be required to turn it off.

“All around, this will be a frustrating experience for potentially millions of cable customers,” he said.

Jake Ward, spokesman for the White Spaces Coalition, a group of tech companies backing Martin, said the results of the FCC's engineering study didn't need further review.

“To suggest that the [FCC] has been anything other than thorough, given the more than four years the FCC has considered this issue, the 14 months they have dedicated to data collection, and the 30,000 comments that have been filed in the white-space docket, is disingenuous and a direct challenge to the integrity of the process and the [FCC] itself,” Ward said.