One of the last questions about the repacking of the television spectrum following the television incentive auction was whether there would be a UHF television channel set aside in each television market for unlicensed wireless uses. Microsoft and other tech companies have been pushing for that set aside for years, arguing that more capacity
As the media has reported extensively this week (for example here and here) the FCC is poised to tap into the television spectrum to allow the use of that spectrum on an unlicensed basis, potentially leading to a wave of innovative unlicensed devices, including potentially turbo-charged Wi-Fi. On the tentative agenda released recently for the next open Commission meeting, to be held next Thursday, September 23rd, the Commission has included an item entitled: "TV White Spaces Second MO&O: A Second Memorandum Opinion and Order that will create opportunities for investment and innovation in advanced Wi-Fi technologies and a variety of broadband services by finalizing provisions for unlicensed wireless devices to operate in unused parts of TV spectrum."
As watchers of the TV white spaces issue will recall, the Commission adopted an Order in late 2008 to permit the operation of unlicensed devices in the so-called "TV white spaces", which is the spectrum in the TV band that is not actively occupied by a television station in a particular geographic area. (An earlier advisory by Davis Wright Tremaine summarizing the Commission’s 2008 Order can be found here.) Following the adoption of that Order, over a dozen parties sought reconsideration of the Commission’s decision; those petitions remain pending. It is not clear whether the proposed Order would be an Order on Reconsideration, but presumably it will address the issues raised by these petitioners. In addition, the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) and others filed an appeal in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking to challenge the FCC’s white spaces Order. That appeal is on hold pending the Commission’s resolution of the Petitions for Reconsideration. Despite the unresolved objections, in late 2009, the FCC moved forward with putting a spectrum management structure in place that would establish a privately maintained database that would permit coordination in order to locate unused spectrum in the TV band in a particular area. We summarized this step in an earlier blog entry here. In early 2010, nine parties submitted proposals to be designated TV Band Device Database Managers, but to date the matter remains pending.
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.