As the digital television transition continues, broadcasters have been concerned about the proposals made by a number of the major computer companies seeking the right to operate low power wireless devices in the spectrum used by television stations – in the so-called "white spaces" between channels. Because of the potential for interference, television obviously don’t operate on every channel in every city. The proposal by the tech companies, about which we wrote here, would allow unlicensed wireless devices to operate at low power within this spectrum, provided that such devices were “smart” enough to detect television signals and to avoid the use of channels that would interfere with these signals. Last week, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology issued a report finding that the prototypes of these devices that had been made available for testing appeared to interfere with television signals. The report did note, however, that this testing should not be viewed as the end of the story on this issue, as further refinements to the devices might be able to eliminate the interference. The FCC has asked for comment on this report. Public comments are due on August 15, with replies on August 30.

The white spaces debate has been a very contentious one. The tech companies who favor it have argued that the efficient use of the television spectrum, and the congestion in other portions of the spectrum used by unlicensed devices, mandate attempts to allow these devices to operate in the television band on the condition that they do not interfere with TV uses. These companies contend that they should be able to create devices that can sense television stations and avoid interference to these stations.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, fear that the these devices will not be able to fully protect television signals. Especially in a DTV world, where a picture is either there or not (it doesn’t just get snowy as does an analog signal suffering from interference), the risk of allowing an interfering device are great. And given the fact that we’re now right in the middle of the digital transition, where there are bound to be issues even without the introduction of a whole new set of potentially interfering devices, it only makes sense to delay these devices for the the near term. Also, as broadcasters are now looking at introducing their own mobile devices reusing the digital television spectrum ( see our post, here), the Commission should not take any action at this time.

This issue has already been the subject of significant Congressional lobbying, as well as many meetings with the officials at the FCC considering the matter. Given the OET report, it would seem that the push to introduce the devices may slow for the near term. But given that the Commission’s staff has left the door open to retesting new wireless devices to see if they can perform better than those initially tested, and the nature of the companies driving this proposal, don’t expect it to disappear for long.