For the first time since the term of FCC Commissioner Tate expired and Chairman Martin resigned, the FCC will be back to full strength with the Senate’s approval of new FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker.  What issues of importance to broadcasters will the Commission, now headed by Chairman Julius Genachowski, take up in coming months?   The new Chairman, who gave a number of interviews last week with the trade and popular press, emphasized the importance of the broadband rollout.  Beyond that, his priorities for the broadcast media were not detailed.  He did, however, emphasize, that any broadcast regulation (specifically referencing the mandatory review of the broadcast ownership rules that must begin next year), would have to take into account the realities of the marketplace – including the current economic conditions.

Beyond that, there were few clues as to the new FCC’s priorities in the broadcast world.  But, even though there are no indications of the FCC’s priorities, there are many open broadcast issues that the Commission will, sooner or later, need to resolve.  Some involve fundamental questions of priorities – trying to decide which user of the spectrum should be preferred over others.  Other issues deal with questions of what kind of public service obligations broadcasters will face.  And yet another set of issues deal with just the nitty gritty technical issues with which the FCC is often faced.  Let’s look at some of these open issues that may affect the broadcast industry. 


Continue Reading A Full Five Person FCC – What’s Next For Broadcasters?

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

The FCC this week released the details of its "White Spaces" decision, authorizing the use of both fixed and mobile unlicensed devices within the television spectrum.  In theory, these devices are supposed to be able to sense the existence of television signals so that they can operate on other frequencies and avoid creating interference.  However, as an extra safety measure, the FCC has also required that these devices connect at least once a day with a database of all other protected users of the television spectrum and, by used of geo-location technology, determine what other users are in the area where the "TVBD" (television band device) is being used and operate on frequencies which protect those other users.  Our firm has prepared a memo outlining the full decision.  The Davis Wright Tremaine memo can be found here.  When one reviews the full text of the FCC decision, it becomes pretty clear that we should not look for such devices anytime soon.

While the Commission’s order actually discussed in some detail the question of whether these devices should be permitted to operate before the end of the digital television conversion in February 2009, given the issues that still need to be resolved, this discussion really appears to be an academic one.  First, devices that meet all of the FCC requirements have to be designed and built, and type-accepted by the FCC labs.  In a recent article by Shelly Palmer in his well regarded blog on television issues, he suggests that many engineers are convinced that these devices simply will not work.  When one reviews the FCC requirements, one can see why that might be the case.


Continue Reading Details of White Spaces Decision Released – Don’t Look for Them Soon as There is Lots to Do Before Any Devices Will Be Introduced

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.


Continue Reading FCC Approves White Spaces Devices in TV Band – While Some Hail a Boon to Wireless Internet, Others Say Not So Fast

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.


Continue Reading Issues on the Post-Transition Use of the Television Spectrum – White Spaces and Distributed Transmission Service (DTS)

On Friday, the FCC issued a public notice promising further testing of "white spaces" devices.   As we’ve written before, these devices are being promoted by many of the largest tech companies as ways to make more efficient use of the television spectrum by using low power wireless devices within that spectrum in places where those devices would not interfere with the operation of television reception.  The National Association of Broadcasters and other television groups have opposed allowing such operations for fear that they will cause interference to broadcast stations.  Especially during the digital transition, when listening habits are just being worked out and new digital televisions are just being purchase and installed by users, and because interference to a digital television station does not result in "snow" as in the analog world, but instead no picture at all, broadcasters fear that these devices could severely impact the success of the digital transition. 

In August, as we wrote here, the FCC released the first results of its interference studies, finding the potential for severe interference to television broadcasters.  While broadcast groups trumpeted these tests as proof of their fears, many of the tech companies claimed that the testing was flawed, using at least one device that was malfunctioning.  The tech companies essentially asked for a "do over," while the broadcasters argued that, even if a tested device was malfunctioning, that malfunction itself was enough to demonstrate that the devices are not reliable enough to protect television operations during this sensitive transition.


Continue Reading FCC Plans More Testing of White Spaces Devices to Operate Within the Television Spectrum

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.


Continue Reading FCC Study Deals Blow to Television White Space Advocates