FCC Caught in Middle of White Spaces Debate

Access to unused TV spectrum sparks sharp divide between tech firms and broadcasters. 

It works; it doesn't work. Testing failed; testing is inconclusive.

These are the battle lines being drawn between powerhouse technology firms and broadcasters over the use of unlicensed spectrum between television channels.

This unused spectrum-known as white spaces-is provided to broadcasters to create interference buffer zones. The broadcasters are loath to share the unused spectrum with technology that Microsoft, Google and other IT powerhouses claim will not interfere with television signals.

The tech companies want the spectrum to deliver broadband and other advanced wireless services, setting up a war of words and intensive lobbying on Capitol Hill. Caught in the middle of the debate is the Federal Communications Commission, which has been investigating the use of white spaces for almost decade.

In July, the FCC put a damper on the idea when it said testing on equipment supplied by Microsoft failed to consistently sense or detect TV broadcast or wireless microphone signals. The White Spaces Coalition, which is now aligned with the Wireless Innovation Alliance, said the FCC inadvertently used a defective device. The agency began a second round of testing that resulted in a Microsoft device losing power.

"By failing two out of two tests at the FCC, Microsoft and the Wireless Innovation Alliance have demonstrated that unlicensed devices are not ready for prime time," the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) crowed in a press statement.

White spaces proponents countered that that is nonsense, pointing out that the problem was an unrelated power issue, not interference. "To be clear, the Microsoft device successfully tested both digital DTV signals and wireless microphones," Brian Peters, a spokesperson for the Wireless Innovation Alliance, said in a statement.

But the NAB said that two tests and two failures means game over. On the other hand, the Wireless Innovation Alliance claims: two tests and two sets of positive results and the future is bright.

"It is not misrepresentation to say that the devices did not work as intended," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton told eWEEK Feb. 21. "That's not spin; that's reality."

Ed Thomas, an engineer and partner in the law firm of Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis and the FCC's former chief engineer, said Feb. 21 that the broadcasters have "misrepresented" the entire FCC testing process. According to Thomas, FCC testing is a data gathering mission to determine a framework for future rules.

The broadcasters, Thomas said, are confusing-perhaps deliberately-the difference between FCC testing of new technology and the product certification process of the agency.

"These devices are in no way designed as a commercial product," he said.

The prototype devices, Thomas said, were submitted to allow the FCC to establish sound rules of the road and bear no resemblance to "prime time devices" that will be marketed if white space technology is approved by the FCC.

One person close to the debate said the issue has dissolved into a "political food fight" marked by "rhetoric, fear mongering and obfuscation" by the broadcasters.

"Consumers have a right to expect products to work," NAB's Wharton said. "It is incumbent on us to point out when they don't."

The FCC is expected to issue the results of its latest testing on white spaces devices later this spring.