The FCC’s long-awaited White Spaces decision, revisiting its authorization of the operation of unlicensed wireless devices in the television spectrum (see our summaries of the intial order here and here), has finally been released.  The FCC decision and associated comments of the Commissioners promise Super Wi-Fi, or Wi-Fi on Steroids, and a host of other wireless digital marvels, without significantly interfering with the incumbent users of the spectrum (principally TV stations and wireless microphone users).  In this order on reconsideration, the FCC addresses many issues raised by many parties to the proceeding – some suggesting that the FCC has not sufficiently protected the incumbent users, while others arguing that the limitations on wireless users are too onerous.  For broadcasters, some of the highlights of the decision include:

  • No change in the interference protections given to TV broadcasters.  Some had suggested the use of various alternative propagation methods to be used instead of the standard FCC method of predicting the protected contours of television stations.  The FCC rejected these proposals, finding that alternatives would not be more accurate in predicting potential interference.  One minor correction including in the database that will be used by wireless devices to protect stations from interference will be included – information on a television station’s antenna beam tilt.
  • No change in the protection of LPTV station protected contours.  LPTV advocates had suggested that greater protection was required for LPTV stations that were still operating in an analog mode.  This was rejected by the Commission, given the impending digital transition for LPTV (see our summary of the LPTV digital transition, here)
  • Greater protection was afforded to cable headends, TV translator receive sites, and the receive locations for Satellite television providers (like DISH and DIRECTV) and other Multichannel Video Providers (MVPDs), so that existing television reception, no matter how it is received will be protected.  The current rules provide that such sites within 80 km from the edge of a television station’s protected contour can register in the database to be used by white spaces devices to determine where they can operate.  The Commission recognized that sites beyond that 80 km distance may also need protection.  Such sites can petition the FCC for waiver of the 80 km distance within 90 days of the effective date of this order, and the FCC will seek comment on whether or not to accord the site protection.  New sites need to register within 90 days of being put into service. 

Some of the other issues addressed by the Commission, including a big change in how these devices will operate to prevent interference, are summarized below.

Perhaps the biggest change was in the requirement that these devices use spectrum-sensing technology to avoid interfering with television stations and wireless microphone users.  The original proposals for these devices were premised on this technology, but this technology was also the most controversial, as broadcasters argued that the devices that had thus far been produced were not reliable in sensing the existence of a signal that was to be protected.  Instead of spectrum sensing technology (which the Commission speculates may be included in future generations of white space devices to allow them to avoid actual interference to their operations), the Commission has decided to rely on the database that it will create of existing users of the spectrum.  The white spaces devices will need to be able to determine where they are and what channels are listed in the database of protected channels in that area, so that the devices will use other channels.  Very specific rules for how often white spaces devices need to assess their location and to access the database were also adopted to make sure that these new interference standards are observed.  Security measures to assure that the communications between the devices and the database are not corrupted were also adopted. 

The Commission also rejected requests to increase the permissible power of these devices and the height from which fixed white spaces devices can operate, and for the operation on channels adjacent to television stations, so as to limit potential interference.  Similarly, requests for more protection for "direct pickup devices" (e.g. the connection between a cable box and a television set that uses a television channel to transmit information from one device to another) were rejected, as the Commission found that manufacturers of such devices could provide more shielding for their connections or otherwise engineer around the issues that might be presented by white space operations.  

On the wireless microphone issue, the FCC decided to set aside certain channels in each market to be dedicated to their use, to establish a specific set of frequencies in each location that can be entered into the database.  Provisions for temporary operations outside of those set-aside frequencies were also established so that accommodations could be made for increased use of such microphones when employed for some big event (e.g. a political convention or major sporting event). 

As is clear from the discussion above, the protection of all current users of these frequencies will rely on the establishment of an accurate and up-to-date database that can be accessed by all of the white spaces devices that may be developed.   The Commission reaffirmed rules that allow for the selection of multiple database operators, and required that their information as to FCC licensees, and other information required by FCC rules, be publicly available so that it can be reviewed for accuracy.  Issues as to fees to be charged to wireless operators by the database operators were left to the discretion of the operator.  Certain other technical rules were adopted.  Of course, before any of these operations can be implemented, the database operators must be selected and approved by the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology  (see our post here on the FCC’s RFP seeking applications for database managers).  The FCC delegated the Chief of that office to oversee the operation of these databases once they are put into use.

When will these devices be operational?  At this point, given the need to establish the databases, and to engineer devices to work with the databases that are established, it is safe to say that the operation will not occur overnight.  When the Commission first approved the concept of white spaces devices, many had predicted operations at points that have long come and gone .  As with everything else in the technology world, when it will happen, and the impact that the rule changes will have in the real world, will only be apparent at some point in the future.  We will all see how this new service develops, and its actual impact on the existing users of these channels but we won’t see it tomorrow.