White Spaces Strike Out with Sports

Professional leagues fear interference with wireless game microphones.

Professional sports leagues became the latest industry group with close ties to broadcasters to oppose the unlicensed use of interference buffer spectrum between television channels.

Google, Microsoft, Motorola and other IT companies hope to deliver broadband and other advanced wireless services over the spectrum.

Known as "white spaces," the tech companies are urging the Federal Communications Commission to approve the proposal and have submitted prototype devices to the agency for testing. The idea has sparked a war of words and intensive lobbying on Capitol Hill.

While broadcasters claim the use of white spaces will lead to interference with their broadcasts, the sports leagues fear the use of the spectrum will cause problems with wireless microphones, which already operate in the disputed spectrum. More than 300 wireless microphones are routinely used at large events such as the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 and the NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament.

In a May 1 filing with the FCC, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the PGA Tour and ESPN all opposed the use of white spaces.

"We are deeply troubled by the crippling disruption and harm that portable devices will cause to live sports events," Ken Kerschbaumer, executive director of the Sports Video Group, said in a May 1 statement. "These devices could knock out wireless communications systems like headsets used by coaches and officials, microphones used by referees to announce penalties and calls, and microphones used by journalists to conduct interviews with athletes and coaches."

The sports leagues maintain in the FCC filing that the tech plan for white spaces would require the leagues to buy and install beacons to jam white space device transmissions. They also claim wireless microphone users would be reduced to channels that require sensing technology for interference protection.

"Not only is the notion of a beacon just that-a notion-but beacons are really just another form of spectrum sensing, which hasn't been proven to be reliable yet," said Kerschbaumer. "Any interference caused by wireless white spaces devices would seriously impair U.S. sports event programming, affecting hundreds of millions of sports fans-denying them full enjoyment of these events."

In July, the FCC put a damper on the white spaces 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 National Association of Broadcasters said in a February press statement.

White spaces proponents countered that the debate is still very much on, 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.