Transition causes fighting over 'white spaces'

Ten months before the nation flips to digital television, technology companies and TV broadcasters are fighting over the virtual remote, with different ideas of what to do with the unused airwaves.

Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others on Tuesday are launching an advertising and lobbying blitz to convince Capitol Hill that these unoccupied airwaves, or “white spaces,” could be used for affordable high-speed Internet service, greatly benefiting rural areas and spurring competition and innovation.

Tech companies say the technology is there to allow low-powered, unlicensed devices, such as cell phones, laptops and BlackBerrys, to operate in the empty spectrum without interfering with over-the-air TV programming and wireless microphone signals.

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to figure if the technology can do this, although several publicized tests have failed.

Such stumbles are exhibit A in the case TV broadcasters are making against opening up white spaces. The broadcasters, who’ve aired their opposition through an equally aggressive lobbying campaign, say if such use is allowed it will interrupt, namely freeze, TV pictures. Viewers could be stuck staring at Paula Abdul’s face while this week’s winners of “American Idol” are announced.

Programming disruptions are why broadcasters want white-space access to require a license. They’ve proposed auctioning off the spectrum for licensed use that could turn the white spaces into a private estate instead of a free public park.

That’s not what lawmakers will be hearing starting Tuesday.

Over the next several weeks, members of the Wireless Innovation Alliance, will tout white-space benefits to lawmakers, who they say are not getting the full picture because their opponents – namely the National Association of Broadcasters – are playing politics and spreading lies.

“We want science to play it self out at the FCC. Broadcasters don’t. They want politics to mess up science,” said alliance spokesman Brian Peters, who’s a lobbyist for the tech trade group Information Technology Industry Council.

When the nation makes the switch to digital TV in February 2009, broadcasters will occupy channels 2 through 51. But almost half those channels in some cities will remain fallow, especially in rural areas where there are fewer broadcasters. Those white spaces are considered valuable because they can travel long distances and go through walls.

But the white spaces are not completely empty either. Many licensed wireless microphone signals – popular in sports venues, concerts, Broadway theater and even houses of worship – have used them for decades.

There’s “virtually no record” of microphone signals interfering with TV broadcasts, said Mark Brunner, a spokesman for Niles, Ill.-based Shure Inc., one of the country’s largest makers of wireless microphones and other audio equipment.

The microphone industry is singing the same tune as broadcasters: unfettered white space use could harm signals and licensed use may be an answer.

The tech alliance says technology to detect and avoid broadcast programming and permit broadband transmission is doable and point to the testing of similar equipment by the U.S. military and other countries, such as Great Britain.

Microsoft, Philips Electronics North America Corp., Adaptrum Inc. and Motorola Inc. have submitted devices to the FCC, which plans to issue a report sometime this summer. But twice this year, Microsoft devices have broken down during tests. Last year, the agency gave another Microsoft device a failing grade.

Three strikes in the lab, say broadcasters, should keep the devices out of the market.

“You would not have Google, Microsoft and others engaging in a broad, wide-ranging political lobbying effort if their equipment worked,” said David Donovan, president of the Association of Maximum Service Television, the technical arm for the TV broadcasting industry. “They’re in trouble.”

Peters says that’s false. Lawmakers want something done with the spectrum, he says, as long as it doesn’t interfere with programming – a desire shared by his group.

The FCC is collecting data to write safe-operating rules for unlicensed devices in the spectrum. The devices that have failed are not prototypes for consumer products.

Google recently suggested additional safeguards from interference, but opponents shot them down.

Broadcasters and wireless microphone say auctioning the spectrum off – an idea also proposed by the CTIA – The Wireless Association, the telecommunications industry’s main lobbying group – would hold a licensee responsible for interference problems and remedies. With unlicensed portable devices tapping in, they say it’s virtually impossible to find the source to any interference.

“Let’s see how serious they (technology companies) really are instead of getting a free ride and threatening the digital television transition,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., last year suggested such an auction although he hasn’t formally proposed any legislation.

Edmond Thomas, a former FCC engineer whose law firm represents tech companies supporting white spaces, said licensing the spectrum makes no sense. He said a single gatekeeper will tightly control access and service and offer devices that won’t be as appealing and innovative as in an unlicensed regime.

“You’ll have so many innovators all exploring ways for it be used,” he said.

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