Green Light for White Spaces


Over the strong objections of TV stations owners and cable operators, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin wants to open vacant TV channels for broadband communications by anyone using a compliant low-power, handheld device.

After years of fierce debate in which cable and broadcasters squared off against the giants of Silicon Valley, Martin said last Wednesday that unused spectrum adjacent to existing TV channels — so-called white spaces — can be utilized by mobile devices without interfering with over-the-air TV reception in millions of American homes.

Martin’s support was based on the findings of an FCC engineering study released last Wednesday night.

“The white-spaces issue has been something the engineers have been studying for a long time. The report they’re putting in the record is very thorough,” Martin said at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. “The white spaces in between those channels can be utilized as long as they are not interfering with the local broadcast channels.”

The cable industry expressed concern that wireless devices operating on vacant TV channels could harm reception in homes where cable-ready TV sets were not snuggly attached to cable lines. Cable also expressed concern about interference at headends, where local TV singals are received and processed.

“While we are still reviewing the entire report, it does confirm that the direct pickup interference concerns we raised in previous filings were valid and millions of consumers will encounter interference on their TVs if the devices are approved at the high power levels that have been proposed,” said National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz.

At a minimum, the NCTA had asked the commission to ensure that unlicensed devices won’t operate at power levels capable of creating interference in cable homes.

Martin’s proposal, however, would allow unlicensed devices to operate at power levels much higher than the maximums sought by the NCTA. Martin, who needs the votes of two FCC members to prevail, said he wants the FCC to adopt his plan at the agency’s Nov. 4 meeting here.

FCC approval would represent a big policy triumph for the White Spaces Coalition, an advocacy group formed by Internet and computer-industry powerhouses Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, supported exploitation of the TV band’s white spaces.

“Our only concern is that the [FCC] may unduly restrict the power levels that can be used on channels adjacent to full-power TV stations,” Calabrese said.

Each TV market has many channels — the exact number varies by market size — that were deliberately left vacant to provide interference protection to incumbent stations within the same local market and in adjacent markets. Rural markets tend to have more white spaces than urban markets.

The White Spaces Coalition argued that such valuable slices of the airwaves could be used by low-power devices on an unlicensed basis without interfering with TV reception.

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television repeatedly claimed that open access to the spectrum would have a devastating impact on broadcast TV because field testing showed that the wireless devices could not routinely stay off channels being used by TV stations.

“Allowing millions of unlicensed devices, which rely exclusively on sensing to avoid interference, on to TV channels will decimate digital television reception across the country,” MSTV president David Donovan said in a statement Wednesday night.

The NAB has indicated that white-spaces spectrum should be auctioned, an approach Martin rejected. He declined to explain his decision when asked by a reporter.