The Trouble With 'White Spaces'

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When it comes to Washington, D.C., there is typically a divide between the traditional broadcast-TV stations and networks and cable networks and multiple-system operators. But recent proposals in the capital are galvanizing the likes of ESPN, DirecTV, and the professional sports leagues and broadcast networks to take action. Here's why.

In recent years, there has been a growing feeling in Washington that the government needs to come up with a way to allow consumers who are not served by cable modems or digital subscriber lines a means of getting onto the information superhighway. In addition, a group of consumer-electronics and computer manufacturers have also felt it would be in their interest to find a way to access that market and sell consumers both devices and subscriptions to wireless broadband services.

Those mutual desires have led both legislators and the manufacturers (who are under the umbrella of the “White Space Coalition” that includes Microsoft, Google, Intel, Philips, Dell and HP) to push to allow wireless personal devices to reside in “White Space” spectrum. “White Space” spectrum is located in the TV band 54-698 MHz and prevents broadcast-TV signals from interfering from one another. Over the years, wireless microphone and other professional wireless systems (like camera control system and communication systems) have been designed to work within the spectrum as it is a controlled environment. With careful coordination at TV events, wireless microphones can be used without fear of interference.

And that is why the White Space proposals are a danger. If consumers are allowed to walk into a sporting event, an awards show or a live concert or theater production, they can turn on their device, grab some White Space spectrum, and cause havoc with the professionals who rely on that spectrum for wireless mic usage.

The danger is very real for today's TV production community as wireless microphones have become a mainstay in television. The reality TV boom would not have occurred without wireless microphones. Town-hall style presidential debates would involve more tripping over wires than words. And sideline reporting and on-field interviews at sports events that bring fans closer to the action would vanish.

Despite a recent spate of failed tests conducted by the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology the White Space Coalition companies will not give up. Key advocates of this proposal include Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.); Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), Rep Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.).

Cable operators should be doubly concerned. Not only will the quality of TV productions decrease (and, in turn, the attractiveness of subscriptions to digital cable networks), but giving the likes of Google or Microsoft the ability to offer wireless broadband access on free spectrum could undo the billions of dollars cable and telco providers have spent laying the foundation for broadband services.

What can you do? Join the likes of the Grand Ol' Opry, ESPN, DirecTV, MSTV, and professional sports leagues and contact your local member of Congress. Tell them that current White Space proposals are bad for cable, bad for business and bad for consumers. And they must not be passed if they allow for personal, portable devices to be used in the White Space spectrum.

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