At the FCC meeting held on Election Day, the Commission approved the operation of "white spaces" devices in the TV spectrum. These would be mobile, unlicensed devices that would operate on TV channels that are not used in a particular location. Many Internet users have hailed the expansion of wireless Internet opportunities that they believe that this decision will bring. While the FCC promised that these devices would protect television operations and other current uses of the TV Band, many other groups have reacted to the decision far more skeptically. All in all, we have probably not heard the end of this debate.
The full text of the FCC Order has not yet been released but, from the Public Notice summarizing the action (which came late in the day, after a several hour delay in the start of the FCC meeting), the FCC appears to have made some concessions to the broadcasters who were objecting that the tests of the white spaces devices were not able to adequately sense the presence of television signals in a way that would protect those stations. So, to protect television signals, the FCC ordered that, in addition to sensing the existence of television signals, the white spaces devices would also have to have geo-location abilities, which would check the location of the device and compare it to a database of television stations and prevent the device from operating on channels that the database shows to be occupied. Even with this capacity, organizations representing television stations do not believe that this compromise is sufficient to protect those stations.
Broadcasters are particularly concerned with the degree of protection that is to be provided by these devices. Press reports quote MSTV (an association of television broadcasters) President David Donovan as being particularly concerned with interference that would be caused to television stations operating on channels adjacent to the channel on which the white spaces device would operate, and also expressed concerns about interference to cable boxes and to wireless microphones used by television newsgathering. The NAB criticized the failure of the Commission to heed Congressional and industry requests to allow comment on the FCC’s most recent engineering study on the interference potential of these devices, which was released only a month before the FCC meeting. Of even more concern to broadcasters was their allegation that the proponents of the white spaces devices ultimate goal was to capture the entire television spectrum for unlicensed wireless devices, relegating TV to being provided by cable or similar subscription delivery systems. These fears were based on statements made at a conference sponsored by Google and the New America Foundation, organizations backing the white spaces proposals.
The New America Foundation, on the other hand, claims that broadcasters claims of interference are overstated and incorrect – and are just part of a pattern of the industry trying to block every new technology that could be competitive. The FCC Commissioners’ statements released at the same time as the Public Notice (Martin, Copps, Adelstein, McDowell, and Tate) also hail the promise of the new technology as a new broadband competitor while claiming that the protections that have been built into the rules will protect broadcasters.
Even some commentators associated with the broadcast industry have suggested that broadcasters prepare for the coming of this new wireless technology. Mark Ramsey, in his Hear 2.0 blog, urges radio broadcasters to prepare for the coming competition from "wi-fi on steroids" that would be available on these channels. Jennifer Lane, in her audio4cast blog, while not specifically reacting to this decision but instead to the general availability of wireless Internet options, suggests that radio broadcasters embrace the Internet, introduce their staffs to Internet radio, or otherwise they will be left behind by new digital competition.
With all the controversy from broadcasters and others concerned about interference and the processes that the Commission followed, the controversy over this decision probably has not ended. With all of the promises made for the uses of these devices, the supporters of white spaces are also likely to push to implement this ruling as soon as possible. This may well be one of those issues that the new FCC will have to deal with yet again in the New Year.