Devices from Microsoft, Google threaten TV

Unlicensed portable broadband devices that Microsoft, Google and other tech companies plan to make and market threaten the future of digital television, a group of broadcasters and media organizations have charged.

In a news conference held Monday morning at the National Assn. of Broadcasters main offices in Washington, execs from ABC, Fox, ESPN and other companies jointly announced the launch of a coordinated advertising and lobbying campaign aimed at the Federal Communications Commission. Aim to sway the FCC against its policy of seeking to allow unlicensed portable broadband devices to operate in the same spectrum that digital TV signals do.

The policy is part of FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin’s mission to expand broadband deployment to rural and other hard-to-access areas of the country by allowing unused portions of the digital spectrum — so-called white spaces — to carry broadband signals to and from portable devices. But broadcasters said the devices can’t distinguish used from unused space and thus interfere with DTV signals, significantly degrading the image on sets.

“Interference is not acceptable to our viewers,” said NAB television board chairman Alan Frank. “While our friends at Intel, Google and Microsoft may find system errors, computer glitches and dropped calls tolerable, broadcasters do not. Consumers know that computers unexpectedly shut down. TVs don’t. TVs work and people expect them to work.”

David Donovan, prexy of the Assn. for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), said that DTV is essentially the future of broadcasting given that all television signals must be digital by February 2009. That transition will cost multiple billions of dollars; degraded images will cause “permanent, irreparable damage to broadcast television,” he said.

Donovan and others cited recent FCC tests conducted on two prototype devices — one made by Microsoft, the other by Philips Electronics USA. The tests showed the Microsoft device was unable to distinguish open or white spaces of spectrum from used or occupied spaces in the DTV bandwidth. The device frequently tried to transmit over occupied space, causing interference.

The Philips device was able to distinguish white from occupied space but was only tested in a laboratory setting. Broadcasters and at least one DTV manufacturer said a lab test is not a reliable indicator of how efficiently the device will ultimately perform in the marketplace.

“Spectrum sensing does not work,” said John Taylor, VP of public relations for LG Electronics.

Microsoft has since claimed that the device it sent was defective. A newer, supposedly functional device has not yet been tested.

After the news conference, the broadcasters — including Anne Sweeney of ABC and Jack Abernathy of Fox TV — headed for the FCC and Capitol Hill to make their views known.

The White Spaces Coalition, which includes Microsoft and Google, issued a statement: “What’s at stake here is simple, the promise of greater broadband access for millions of Americans including those in underserved rural areas. The FCC’s analysis has confirmed that this spectrum can be used for broadband Internet without interfering with Americans’ TV signals.”

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