With the final transition of television from analog to digital soon upon us, the FCC has scheduled for consideration at its November meeting two items that will address the use of the television spectrum after the transition – one designed to improve television reception, and the other viewed by television broadcasters as a threat to that reception. The potential positive development is Distributed Transmission Service ("DTS"). The other proposal – which is far more controversial – is the proposal to authorize "white spaces devices" that operate wireless devices within the portion of the spectrum that will still be used by television stations after the transition.
DTS is the proposal that would allow television stations to use more than one transmitter to reach its service area. Like the use of FM on-channel boosters, a DTS system would permit stations to use multiple transmitters located throughout their service area, each broadcasting on the same channel, but operating at a lower power than the traditional television station which usually operates from a single high-powered transmitter. The idea is that, in digital, signals distributed from lower power transmitters spread throughout the service area might be less susceptible to signal impediments from terrain and building obstacles than would a single high-power transmitter. The FCC proposed adoption of this system several years ago with little opposition, but it has languished. Some have suggested that the experience in Wilmington, where some people who lived far from the center of the market were having over-the-air reception problems, gave new impetus to DTS as one way to provide better service to these more remote areas.
The second proposal, on white spaces, is far more controversial. We’ve written about some of the white spaces issues before, and about one FCC study that found interference problems from these devices. As these devices operate in the TV band on supposedly empty channels, it is important that they be able to detect television operations so that the devices can protect the TV stations from interference. Now, the FCC has put the issue on its November agenda, after the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology ("OET") released a second report which some characterize as demonstrating that the white spaces devices could work in the TV spectrum without creating interference to television reception (or to wireless microphones that also operate in the same frequencies). However, television representatives have opposed the consideration of this issue without opportunity to comment on this OET Report, arguing that the details of the report show potential interference, pointing particularly at data which, they state, suggests that the white spaces devices have particular problems sensing TV stations operating on adjacent channels and thus could cause interference to these stations.
Thus, broadcasters have been lobbying hard to have the Commission put the issue on hold for further study. One of the most recent developments was a letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee John Dingell to FCC Chairman Martin, asking a series of questions about the FCC’s process – asking if the FCC’s engineering report was subject to peer review to suggest any shortcomings, whether the FCC considered licensing these devices so that tracking interference concerns could be easier than with unlicensed mobile devices, and asking for the FCC to account for ways in which it regulates other unlicensed devices and interference issues that may occur ("pirate radio" being included in the list of unlicensed operations about which enforcement history is requested – one area where many broadcasters have alleged that the FCC has often been slow to act to stop illegal operations). Congressman Dingell has requested the answer to his questions by October 31 – before the FCC’s scheduled November meeting.
With this October 31 deadline, we’ll see whether Halloween brings a treats or a trick for the white spaces proponents.