White Space Database Update: Comsearch System Ready for Testing

 After a three-month period of inactivity, there’s a sign of life on the white space database administrator front. Finally breaking out of the starting blocks, Comsearch’s TV Band Database System is now ready for public testing. According to a public notice from the Office of Engineering and Technology, that system will get a 45-day test run beginning on February 24, 2014, followed by the well-established drill: Comsearch will have to file a report on the test, public comment on the report will be invited and, if everything works out Comsearch’s way, the FCC will eventually approve it as a coordinator. If and when that happens, Comsearch will join the four others already approved. (For those of you may have lost track, those would be Google, Inc., Key Bridge Global LLC, Spectrum Bridge Inc. and Telcordia Technologies.)

Four other candidates have still not reached the testing phase, so check back here for updates.

In keeping with our white space database SOP, we have updated our handy-dandy table charting the progress of each of the would-be administrators: 


Test Started

Test Finished; Comments Sought

Coordinator Approved


 Feb. 24, 2014    

Frequency Finder Inc.


Google Inc.

Feb. 27, 2013

May 29, 2013

June 28, 2013

LS telecom AG

June 18, 2013

     Nov. 14, 2013


Key Bridge Global LLC

March 4, 2013

May 29, 2013

   Nov. 19, 2013

Microsoft Corp.


Neustar Inc.


Spectrum Bridge Inc.

Sept. 14, 2011

Nov. 10, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011

Telcordia Technologies

Dec. 2, 2011

Feb. 1, 2012

March 26, 2012



Key Bridge Global LLC Becomes Fourth "White Space" Coordinator to Win Approval

Key Bridge Global LLC joins Google, Spectrum Bridge and Telcordia in the ranks of “approved” database coordinators.

Our handy-dandy table for tracking the progress of would-be white space database administrators is getting a work-out. Just last week we noted the completion of
L S Telcom’s testing
, and now it’s Key Bridge Global LLC’s turn. The Commission has announced the Key Bridge has made it to the finish line – it has been approved to provide service to certified unlicensed devices operating in the TV white spaces. This latest notice has been included in the appropriate box below.

Four down, six to go. Check back here for further updates. 

(Fuzzy on the whole white space database administrator question?  Check out this post for some background.)


Test Started

Test Finished; Comments Sought

Coordinator Approved



Frequency Finder Inc.


Google Inc.

Feb. 27, 2013

May 29, 2013

June 28, 2013

LS telecom AG

June 18, 2013

     Nov. 14, 2013


Key Bridge Global LLC

March 4, 2013

May 29, 2013

   Nov. 19, 2013

Microsoft Corp.


Neustar Inc.


Spectrum Bridge Inc.

Sept. 14, 2011

Nov. 10, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011

Telcordia Technologies

Dec. 2, 2011

Feb. 1, 2012

March 26, 2012




Fifth White Space Coordinator Completes Tests

The FCC requests comment on white space database tests recently conducted by LS telcom AG.

The FCC has asked for comment on white space database tests recently conducted by LS telcom AG.  The test report can be found here. Mark your scorecards: LS telcom is the fifth would-be administrator to complete its testing. Five down, five to go.

Our CommLawBlog entry reporting the commencement of LS telcom’s tests may be found here.

Comments on the test report are due by November 29, 2013 and reply comments by December 6.

For background on the databases and what they do, see this article.


Test Started

Test Finished; Comments Sought

Coordinator Approved



Frequency Finder Inc.


Google Inc.

Feb. 27, 2013

May 29, 2013

June 28, 2013

LS telcom AG

June 18, 2013

      Nov. 14, 2013


Key Bridge Global LLC

March 4, 2013

May 29, 2013


Microsoft Corp.


Neustar Inc.


Spectrum Bridge Inc.

Sept. 14, 2011

Nov. 10, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011

Telcordia Technologies

Dec. 2, 2011

Feb. 1, 2012

March 26, 2012







Google Becomes Third "White Space" Coordinator to Win Approval

Google joins Spectrum Bridge and Telcordia in the ranks of “approved” database coordinators.

Providing us with the first test of our recently announced approach to further developments on the white space database administrator front, the FCC has approved Google’s system.  We have updated our table accordingly. 


Test Started

Test Finished; Comments Sought

Coordinator Approved



Frequency Finder Inc.


Google Inc.

Feb. 27, 2013

May 29, 2013

June 28, 2013

LS telecom AG

June 18, 2013


Key Bridge Global LLC

March 4, 2013

May 29, 2013


Microsoft Corp.


Neustar Inc.


Spectrum Bridge Inc.

Sept. 14, 2011

Nov. 10, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011

Telcordia Technologies

Dec. 2, 2011

Feb. 1, 2012

March 26, 2012



Fifth "White Space" Coordinator Begins Tests

LS telcom AG seeks to join the two coordinators operating and two others awaiting approval.

TV “white space” devices operate on TV channels that are vacant in a given area. (On a map of frequency usage, these areas show up in white; hence the name.)

These devices must avoid causing interference to active TV stations, certain wireless microphones, and certain TV reception sites. To accomplish this, most are required to consult a complex and changing database that shows where they can safely operate.

The FCC has identified ten administrators for the database, expected to operate competitively. Before receiving FCC approval, each candidate must run a live test of its operations, submit test reports to the FCC, and survive public comment.

We here in the CommLawBlog bunker have covered developments on the white space database coordination front for several years. Most recently, those developments have been somewhat repetitive and our posts were all starting to look the same. We tried to mix things up a bit with poetry (limericks! a haiku!) . . . but soon found the limit to our poetic abilities.

So here’s what we plan to do going forward.

The table below reflects all the would-be database coordinators and all the steps on the way to FCC approval. Each time there is a new development, we will post an updated version of the table. Dates in the table reflect the dates of the FCC public notices relevant to the particular event. Clicking on a date brings up the respective public notice. The date shown in bold face red will always be the most recent event. 


Test Started

Test Finished; Comments Sought

Coordinator Approved



Frequency Finder Inc.


Google Inc.

Feb. 27, 2013

May 29, 2013


LS telcom AG

June 18, 2013


Key Bridge Global LLC

March 4, 2013

May 29, 2013


Microsoft Corp.


Neustar Inc.


Spectrum Bridge Inc.

Sept. 14, 2011

Nov. 10, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011

Telcordia Technologies

Dec. 2, 2011

Feb. 1, 2012

March 26, 2012



Prosaic, perhaps, but far less taxing on our limited creative resources and, in the end, probably a more useful way of keeping our readers abreast of the overall database coordinator scene. 

[Blogmeister's Note: We are hoping to work a deal with somebody (are you listening, Starbucks and Chipotle?) so that, when the table has been completely filled up, our readers will be able to print it out and present it for a free cup of coffee or maybe a burrito.  Check back here for updates.]

LoPo TV Warning: White Space Devices Are Coming - Have You Updated Your CDBS Information?

Special CDBS website unveiled as FCC tries to help rebroadcasting low power stations secure the protection to which they’re entitled.

If you’re the licensee of an LPTV or a TV Translator or a Class A TV station – collectively for our purposes here, “low power stations” – that rebroadcasts the over-the-air signal of another station, the FCC’s trying to help you out.   In the near future, TV white space devices will take to the air, creating a potential source of interference to your ability to receive the signals you rebroadcast. As the FCC proceeds with tests of databases to control those white space devices, it has simplified the steps necessary to ensure the protection to which you are entitled from those devices.

White space devices, as we hope you know by now, operate in locally vacant TV channels. They are required to protect not only household TV reception but also various other facilities, including some (but not all) low power stations that rebroadcast the signals of other TV stations. These stations receive two kinds of protection. White space devices (except for those at very low power) are not permitted to operate inside or close to the stations’ service contours – a matter not at issue here. Also protected, and the subject of this post, are the receivers these stations use to pick up the signal of the originating station for rebroadcast.

White space devices will have to consult a special database to identify available channels. That database in turn will draw on CDBS to identify low-power stations whose receivers are entitled to protection.

A public notice announces a special web page at which qualifying stations can register their receiver channels into the FCC’s CDBS system.

For protection purposes, low power stations fall into one of three distinct situations:

  1.  Low power stations located within the protected service contour of the originating station they rebroadcast – these low power stations are automatically protected under the umbrella of the originating station.
  2. Low power stations located outside the protected service contour of their originating stations, but within 80 km of the originating station’s service contour – these low power stations are entitled to protection from white space devices, but only if the low power station’s facilities have been properly entered in CDBS.
  3. Low power stations located more than 80 km beyond their originating station’s protected service contour – these low power stations are not entitled to protection unless the FCC has granted a waiver.

The FCC reminds low power stations, particularly those in the second group described above above (or in the third group with waivers), to make sure that their CDBS entries are current and correct. When full-power stations changed channels as part of the 2009 digital transition, and low power stations adjusted their receivers accordingly, many forgot to tell the FCC. Since protection of those receivers from white space devices will be dependent on the information for those stations in CDBS, this is a good time to visit the FCC’s new web page and make sure all the information there is current and accurate.

White Space Database Update

The FCC requests comment on white space database tests recently conducted by Google, Inc. and Key Bridge Global LLC.

In separate public notices, the FCC has asked for comment on white space database tests recently conducted by Google, Inc. and Key Bridge Global LLC. (The FCC paperwork misidentifies the second company as "Keybridge Global Inc.") Their respective test reports are here and here. Mark your scorecards: once approved, these will be database managers numbers 3 and 4.

Prior CommLawBlog entries on these tests are here and here.

Comments on both tests are due on June 13, 2013 and reply comments in June 20.

For background on the databases and what they do, see this article.

[Blogmeister’s Note: In keeping with the practice we introduced with our last white space database post, we have sought to capture the essence of these recent developments poetically:

An FCC Haiku to the Public

Key Bridge and Google
filed database test reports.
Comments?  We’re all ears.]

Fourth "White Space" Database Coordinator Tees Up Tests

Next up is Key Bridge Global LLC.

Add Key Bridge Global LLC to the list of TV “white space” database coordinators ready for testing. White space systems, we all know, operate in locally vacant TV spectrum; most must consult a database of other users to avoid causing interference. Of the ten FCC-approved coordinators eligible to provide access to the database, Spectrum Bridge, Inc. and Telcordia Technologies, Inc. have successfully completed their tests and are authorized to support white space devices nationwide, while Google and now Key Bridge Global are in the test preparation phase.

We will keep on keeping track.

[Blogmeister’s Note: As much as we here at CommLawBlog enjoy keeping everybody up-to-date on doings at the FCC, there are limits. Since the FCC started implementing its white space database coordination process, we’ve reported on the appointments of nine -- and then a tenth -- database administrators, three test launches, two requests for public comment on test results, and two final approvals. This post marks the fourth test launch. They are all starting to look the same.

We’re happy to keep reporting as we have done but, frankly, the repetition gets a bit tedious. So we offer here an alternative approach: limericks! 

Here are some examples. We encourage our readers to try their hand, too – submit them as comments. (Nothing X-rated, please.) We’ll post them without criticism. Honest.

Key Bridge Global Authorized to Test

Said the FCC Chief Engineer
To Key Bridge: "Do your test, do you hear?
Just prove you comply --
No, there’s no second try.
Get it right, or you’re out on your rear."

Summary of the White Space Coordination Program To Date

The FCC said to the nation:
We’ve settled on this delegation –
Just ten firms – no more –
That will take on the chore
Of inputting white space co’rdination.

Spectrum Bridge, Inc. became number one.
Telcordia’s next in the sun,
And then Google was blessed
With permission to test . . .
But the FCC still wasn’t done.

Next in line: Key Bridge LLC Global
Coordinates fixed and, yes, mobile
Devices that choose
Just what spectrum to use
And with no interference – that’s no bull.

The Commission has clearly mandated
That each of the firms designated
Will assure straightaway
That white spaces will stay
Non-color co-ordinated.]

TV "White Space" Devices Go Nationwide

New action follows December roll-out to eastern states.

TV “white space” devices, which operate on an unlicensed basis in locally vacant TV spectrum, are now authorized nationwide. This is pretty fast, by Government standards; just last December the FCC okayed the first large-scale roll-out to seven eastern states plus Washington, D.C. The class of approved coordinators for the database these devices rely on to find open channels is growing much more slowly. Also growing slowly is the number of FCC-approved devices that can use the service; we count just five so far.

Third "White Space" Database Coordinator to Begin Tests

Google is up next; seven more to come.

Unlicensed “white space” devices, which operate in locally vacant TV spectrum, rely on a database of other users to avoid causing interference. The FCC has approved ten coordinators to provide access to the database, and has completed tests on two: Spectrum Bridge, Inc. and Telcordia Technologies, Inc. The FCC subsequently authorized white space operation over much of the eastern United States.

Now the FCC has announced tests of a third provider, a relative unknown called Google Inc. The 45-day public trial will begin on March 4. Details are here. We will let you know the results.

Seven more to go.

FCC Approves "White Space" Devices in Eastern U.S.

New systems must protect many other services from interference.

Fully four years after adopting rules for unlicensed TV Band Devices (TVBDs), also called “white space” systems, the FCC has authorized roll-out beyond the two small test areas previously approved. Touted by advocates as “Wi-Fi on steroids,” TVBDs can now boot up in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, and North Carolina.

The FCC expects to extend authorization nationwide by mid-January.

TVBDs are required to avoid causing interference to multiple services: broadcast TV; fixed broadcast auxiliary service links; receive sites for TV translators, low power TVs, Class A TVs, and multichannel video programming distributors; public safety and private land mobile; offshore radio telephone; radio astronomy; and “low power auxiliary service,” which includes licensed (and some unlicensed) wireless microphones. 

The complexity of the TVBD rules results from the need to ensure that all of these services can operate unharmed. In many metropolitan areas having multiple TV channels and heavy use of wireless microphones, vacant spectrum for TVBDs is already scarce. The FCC’s ongoing plans to consolidate TV broadcasters onto fewer channels, so as to free up more spectrum for wireless use, will only make things worse.

Simultaneously with the spread of TVBDs into the Middle Atlantic states, the FCC expanded its registration program for wireless microphones from those same states out to the rest of the country, keeping the wireless mic registrations a step ahead of the TVBD roll-out.

FCC Launches Nationwide Registration of Wireless Microphones

Registration is needed to protect qualifying events from interference caused by TV Band Devices

The FCC has expanded its registration program for wireless microphones from the Middle Atlantic states to the rest of the country.   Registration helps to protect qualifying wireless microphones that operate in vacant TV channels from interference caused by TV Band Devices (TVBDs), also called “white space” systems, that likewise use vacant TV slots.

When the FCC established rules for TVBDs, it required those devices to avoid interfering not only with TV stations, but also with several other categories of equipment operating on TV frequencies. The most populous of those, by far, are the wireless microphones that are ubiquitous in TV, stage, and film production.

Most wireless microphones used in TV and films are licensed by the FCC.  Most others – including those used in stage shows, churches, and the FCC meeting room – operated illegally until January 2010, when the FCC authorized low-power models on an unlicensed basis by waiver. (As it considers whether to make those rules permanent, the FCC recently sought to update the record on wireless microphone issues generally.)

Two TV channels in every market are closed to TVBDs, so as to leave room for wireless microphones. Licensed wireless microphones needing additional channels are entitled to interference protection from TVBDs. So are unlicensed microphones on other channels, but only if used for major sporting events, live theatrical productions and shows, and similar occasions that require more microphones than the set-aside channels can accommodate.

To implement protection, qualified events must register in the database that controls which frequencies TVBDs can use at each location. The FCC has authorized the operation of TVBDs in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, and North Carolina, and expects nationwide authorization by mid-January. Those who distribute or use wireless microphones should make sure any needed registrations are in place before TVBDs are deployed in their vicinity.

The details of the registration process are available here. The conditions and procedures are complex; and the FCC cautions that most uses of unlicensed wireless microphone do not qualify for registration. We recommend planning ahead.

Update: Comment Dates Set in Wireless Mic Inquiry

 We recently reported on the FCC’s inquiry about how best to accommodate wireless microphones in the face of the dwindling amount of vacant television spectrum space on which those mics have historically been allowed to operate. The Commission’s request for comments has now made it into the Federal Register, which as we all know by now establishes the relevant filing deadlines. Comments in response to the FCC’s request are due by November 21, 2012, and reply comments are due by December 12, 2012.

Wireless Mic Users - Listen Up!

The FCC wants help in squeezing more wireless microphones into ever-shrinking spectrum.

Traditional wireless microphones – the kind you see on TV, big stage shows, and in lecture halls and churches – operate on locally vacant TV channels. But those channels are becoming scarce. The FCC has asked for comment on how to accommodate these microphones in the future.

In the old days of analog TV, there were a lot of TV channels, and the shortcomings of analog receivers meant a lot of those channels in each market could not be used for TV. That left plenty of room for wireless microphones. The picture began to change in 2009, when the last full-power analog stations went off the air. Because digital TV stations can be packed more tightly than analog stations, the FCC was able to free up 18 channels for other uses, which left fewer empty channels for wireless microphones. Then, a year ago, the FCC approved the first operation of “white space” devices that provide Wi-Fi-like service in some of the remaining vacant TV channels. The FCC reserved two channels in every market for wireless microphones, and provided for additional channels where needed in a complicated set of regulations; but there is no getting around the fact that a lot more devices will be trying to operate in a lot less spectrum. Then, last month, the FCC proposed “incentive auctions” designed to encourage broadcasters to give up still more channels.

Despite the squeeze on spectrum for wireless microphones, we can’t do without them – at least so long as we want good audio in our movies, TV, and stage shows. Even the FCC has implicitly acknowledged these devices are indispensable. For decades, it issued licenses for TV-band wireless microphones to just a few categories: broadcasters and broadcast networks, cable TV operators, and movie and TV producers. That’s all. Missing from the list are Broadway shows, concert venues, college lecture halls, and your local house of worship. Operation in all such facilities was commonplace, but illegal. Of course the FCC knew about those uses – it even had a wireless microphone in its own meeting room. But even the illegal operations were well managed, causing no interference to TV stations, so the FCC wisely left things alone.

The advent of white space devices, though, brought the need for better control over who uses microphones, and where. Bringing regulation into line with reality, the FCC considered broadening the list of eligible licensees. It also took the unusual step of proposing to legalize previously illegal operation by allowing lower-power wireless microphones to operate as unlicensed devices, under the same basic rules as Wi-Fi and cordless telephones. The power limit would be lower than for licensed wireless microphones, but higher than for most other unlicensed devices, and should suffice for good sound in most halls and churches. That proposed relaxation has not yet been adopted.

Now the FCC is hoping technological advances will solve the spectrum problem. After all, digital TV stations can fit four channels into one analog TV channel; digital cell phones carry twenty times the traffic in the same spectrum as the old analog cell phones. Why shouldn’t digital wireless microphones show similar improvement? 

But there is a catch. The increased spectrum efficiency in digital TV and digital cell phones comes not from digitizing the signal, but from compressing the signal once it is digitized. And compression adds delay. (To hear the delay, call your cell phone from your wireline phone, put one to each ear, and talk.) A performer using a wireless microphone can tolerate delay of only a few thousandths of a second, which limits the possible compression.

Still, digitizing can help. Analog microphones on the same TV channel have to be spaced well apart, allowing only about six to eight per channel, or else they interact to create unwanted signals. Digital microphones each take up about as much spectrum, but they can be squeezed closer together, so a TV channel can accommodate a dozen or so.

Before it moves further on these matters, the FCC wants to hear from wireless microphone manufacturers, installers, and users. The detailed request for information is here. Comments and reply comments will be due 20 days and 51 days after publication in the Federal Register. (Check back here with www.CommLawBlog.com for updates.) Comments and reply comments on the proposed incentive auction rules, including rules applicable to wireless microphones, are due on December 21 and February 19, respectively.

In the meantime, the FCC has released a public notice on how wireless microphone users can register for protection from white space devices in certain east coast states. The details, which are complex, can be found here.

Update: Revised "White Space" Rules To Take Effect June 18

Last month we reported on an FCC action that may mark the end of the decade-long “white space” proceeding authorizing the operation of some unlicensed devices in the broadcast television bands. The Commission’s Third Memorandum Opinion and Order (3rd MO&O), released in early April, disposed of a handful of petitions for reconsideration of the agency’s 2010 decision which had in turn tweaked technical “white space” specs adopted back in 2008. The 3rd MO&O has now been published in the Federal Register, which means that, barring any extraordinary intervening event (like the issuance of a stay – the approximate likelihood of which is pretty much zero), the rules as modified last month will take effect on June 18, 2012

FCC Okays Second Area for "White Space" Operations

If you live in Nottoway County, Virginia, you’re in luck.

The FCC has authorized TV white space database coordinator Telcordia to offer service within Nottoway County, Virginia, a mostly rural area toward the southern part of the state. Initial operations will include 20 sites serving rural schools and households. The action comes less than a month after the FCC approved Telcordia’s database, and four months after the first white space operations were approved for Wilmington, NC by coordinator Spectrum Bridge, Inc.

Included in the Nottoway County order are special procedures for registering wireless microphones entitled to protection from white space devices.

We assume the pace of approvals will pick up. At the current rate, we calculate it will take until the year 2797 before white space systems are fully deployed. By then, we expect to be communicating telepathically via devices wired into our nervous systems. Assuming, of course, the FCC can free up enough spectrum.

FCC Deletes 2,456 Fixed Microwave Licenses

Action follows licensee’s failure to pay $430,000 in filing fees when seeking an extension of the construction deadlines.

The FCC has denied reconsideration of an order that terminated 2,456 fixed point-to-point microwave licenses.

Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN), obtained the licenses between January 2008 and March 2009. FCC rules require a link to become operational within 18 months of the license grant, or the license automatically terminates. For MAN, the deadlines fell between July 2009 and September 2010. But before the earliest of those dates, in June 2009, MAN filed applications to extend all of the deadlines until March 2011. It explained that the microwave links were intended to support TV “white space” systems, and that delays in the FCC’s finalizing of the white space rules required the extension.

Ordinarily an application to extend a microwave construction deadline must be accompanied by a filing fee, which at that time was $175. The total filing fees for all of MAN’s applications works out to almost $430,000. Understandably, MAN filed a simultaneous request for a waiver of all but one of the filing fees. But the FCC’s rules state that, when a fee waiver is sought, the filing fees to be waived must accompany the waiver request; if the waiver is granted, the fees will then be refunded. MAN paid the fee for one application, but not the others.   In July 2009, the FCC dismissed all but one of the extension requests for failure to pay the fee.

MAN filed a timely Petition for Reconsideration of the dismissal. No one opposed. Eighteen months later, when the FCC had not yet acted, the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition asked it to delete the MAN licenses from the database, as they were hindering frequency coordination of other license applications. The FWCC argued that even if MAN prevailed on its reconsideration request, that would extend the construction date only through the preceding March, so that MAN would still be in default regardless of the outcome.

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau has now denied MAN’s petition for reconsideration, and ordered the removal of its licenses from the database. As to all but one of the licenses, the FCC found the extension applications to be defective for failure to pay the filing fee. As to the single application for which the fee in fact was paid, the FCC found that MAN had offered insufficient grounds for the extension.

MAN can still ask the full Commission to review the Bureau’s decision. Its problem, though, is that even a reversal of the Bureau, and a grant of the extension request, would carry the licenses only through March 2011 – now more than a year in the past. So far as we can tell, MAN has no procedural path by which it might keep the licenses in force until it is ready to use them. It can, however, reapply for the same licenses when that time comes, although other applications filed in the meantime may have made some of the paths unavailable.

The guidance here for other microwave applicants is clear: the FCC’s 18-month construction deadline has teeth. Applying for licenses too soon can turn out to have expensive consequences.

FCC Adjusts "White Space" Rules

Minor changes may signal an end to almost a decade of rulemaking.

The FCC has released yet another decision in its long-running effort to implement rules allowing unlicensed “white space” devices in the television bands. The latest revision does not represent any wholesale changes, but will make it easier for some devices to operate.

White space devices (TV Band Devices or TVBDs, in the FCC’s nomenclature) rely on the fact that every location has some TV spectrum not being used. Those vacant frequencies typically show up as white spaces on a map of spectrum occupancy – hence the name. Technical studies show that properly controlled unlicensed devices can use these channels without causing interference to TV operation and other authorized users, including wireless microphones.

Following a Notice of Inquiry late in 2002, and a 2004 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC first adopted rules allowing white space devices in 2006, but left the technical specifics for a later date. Those came in 2008, and then in 2010 the FCC responded to petitions for reconsideration with a number of revisions. Now the FCC has addressed petitions for reconsideration of the 2010 order.

The rules categorize each white space device as either fixed or mobile. A fixed device must have its location either professionally programmed in or determined by an on-board GPS device, and is subject to limits on operating power, antenna height, and antenna gain limits. Before operating, it must query a database of available spectrum for its location. A mobile device may similarly use GPS to determine its location and then query a database (Mode II devices); alternatively, it can contact another white space device that will in turn query the database (Mode I devices). The FCC has so far approved ten private companies to administer the databases, of which two have completed testing to the FCC’s satisfaction.

In its recent order disposing of the petitions for reconsiderations, the Commission provided the following changes and clarifications:

 Antenna Height. The 2010 rules limited fixed device antenna heights to a maximum of 30 meters above ground, and the height above the average terrain (HAAT) to no more than 76 meters. Several parties requested reconsideration of this restriction, particularly the HAAT portion. (According to one, the majority of the state of West Virginia would have been off-limits.) The FCC now allows fixed white space devices to have antennas up to 250 meters above average terrain, although still no more than 30 meters above ground level. At the same time, the FCC revised the separation distances between fixed white space devices and television contours to allow for the greater HAAT, but left unchanged the separations for wireless microphones and the exclusion zones around MVPD, LPTV, and BAS receive sites.  A device that provides database information to Mode I portable devices must comply with the previous HAAT limitations, so as to keep the Mode I device from straying too far from a known location.

Out-of-Band Emissions: The 2010 rules limited out-of-band emissions to 72.8 dB below the device’s highest in-band emissions. Now the out-of-band emissions are relaxed to 72.8 dB below the maximum power allowed within the 6 MHz bandwidth. The new order also cuts back the required occupied bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, so as to ease the roll-off at the channel edges, and slightly increases the allowable power spectral density so as to leave total power unchanged.

Channel 52 Protection:  As part of the transition to digital television, the FCC auctioned former TV channels 52 and above for wireless use. The wireless companies have long sought restrictions on channel 51 TV operation to protect their frequencies just above, and similarly requested limits on white space devices on channel 51. The FCC refused, partly on procedural grounds, and partly on the principle that white space devices, being unlicensed, are already required to protect licensed wireless operations.

Classes of Devices: The FCC rejected a new class of white space device, similar to “Mode II” but for indoor use only, without GPS capabilities. The FCC feared these could be easily moved without updating their locations, thus creating interference. It also found the new class to be largely unnecessary, as Mode I portable devices may operate without geolocation (although they must query a Mode II or fixed device periodically).

Confidentiality of Database Information: The FCC makes publicly available all information required to be included in the databases that white spaces devices must search before operating.  A cable association asked the FCC to withhold certain data, including coordinates of cable headends and towers, claiming this type of equipment was “critical infrastructure” that could be subject to terrorist attack. The FCC disagreed with the premise and refused the rule change.

Finally, the FCC clarified two points. It emphasized that LPTV, television translator, and Class A television stations will have their receive sites protected based on the coordinates available in the existing CDBS database. The FCC will create a new web interface so that broadcasters can update the information. Second, the recent order corrects the coordinates of certain radio astronomy sites, which must be included in white spaces databases and protected by white spaces devices.

Most of the rule changes will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. Revisions to the filing of receive site information and entry of other information into the white spaces databases require OMB sign-off, and will probably take a few months longer.   Check back here for updates.

So far all of these rules control only a limited deployment in Wilmington, NC. But with the rules approaching final form, and more databases coming on line, white space devices may finally take the big step from PowerPoint to reality.

Second "White Space" Coordinator Approved

Operations are still limited to Wilmington, NC.

The FCC has announced that Telcordia Technologies, one of the ten database managers for “white space” operations, has been approved to provide service to the public. See the details here. Telcordia, which completed its test in January, is the second database manager to secure this approval.   Eight more are waiting in the wings.

But most of the public that Telcordia is authorized to serve will have to wait for that service. For now the FCC has approved white space operations only in Wilmington, NC.

Second "White Space" Database Completes Test

FCC requests public comment on results of Telcordia system testing

“White space” wireless operation on locally vacant TV channels requires that devices consult a database of users entitled to protection, including broadcast TV stations and some wireless microphones. See a list here. The FCC has authorized ten companies to provide and operate those databases. The second such company, Telcordia Technologies Inc., recently completed a 45-day test that began in December.

The FCC now seeks public input on the Telcordia results, which are posted here. Comments are due on February 16, 2012, and reply comments on February 23.

In the meantime, white space operations were scheduled to begin last week in Wilmington, NC, using a database provided by Telcordia’s competitor, Spectrum Bridge, the first to complete testing.

There are still eight database providers to go. We will keep track so you don’t have to.

FCC Approves First "White Space" Operations

First white space database and end-user devices to begin operation in January in Wilmington, NC.

The FCC has approved the first “white space” database and the first end-user devices to begin operation on January 26, 2012, initially limited to the Wilmington, NC area.

White space devices are supposed to provide Wi-Fi-like services, only better, using locally vacant TV channels. Successful operation will depend on complex databases to help each device identify channels on which it can safely operate, without causing interference to TV stations, radio astronomy, wireless microphones, and several other services entitled to protection. We reported just last month that the first of ten FCC-approved database providers, Spectrum Bridge Inc., had posted the results from a 45-day test of its system. The FCC has now announced its acceptance of that system, and simultaneously, its approval of an end-user white space device that operates in conjunction with the Spectrum Bridge database.

Operators of the various services protected against the devices – see a list here – should make sure their facilities are properly listed in the database.

White space operations will be limited at the outset to the environs of Wilmington, NC. Wilmington was also the city chosen by the FCC a few years back for an early trial of the cut-over from analog to digital TV. We’re not sure why the FCC keeps putting Wilmington’s TV reception at risk. Perhaps the city is an unheralded center for high-tech early adopters. Or the home of someone whom the FCC just doesn’t like.

Another White Space Database Ready to Make Its Debut

Telcordia Tech testing to take off 12/7.

Last September we reported on the fact that one of the nine (oops, make that ten) white space database administrators had announced that its system was ready to have its tires kicked. That 45-day test has since wrapped up, and the Commission has since invited comments on the results. 

And now a second database administrator – Telcordia Technologies, Inc. – has given the word that it, too, is ready for testing . . . or at least it will be, as of December 7. That date will kick off Telcordia’s 45-day test period, during which members of the public are invited to run the Telcordia system through its paces to ensure that it does what it’s supposed to do. (In case you’ve forgotten, all white space database systems are expected to (1) correctly identify channels in the TV band that are available for unlicensed operation, (2) register facilities in that band that are entitled to protection, and (3) afford protection to authorized services and registered facilities as specified in the Commission’s rules.)

You can access the Telcordia system at https://prism.telcordia.com/tvws/home/trial starting December 7 (but not before) and running through January 20, 2012, possibly longer if the Commission determines that an extension is warranted. The Commission encourages the public to take the system for a test drive to make sure that it's doing what it’s supposed to do. Items available for testing include a channel availability calculator, and separate utilities to register: MVPD receive sites; broadcast auxiliary temporary receive sites; fixed TVWS devices; and wireless microphones. Obviously, if any inaccuracies pop up, they should be reported to Telcordia pronto.

Check out our previous posts for more background on the white space database administrator program.

FCC Seeks Comment on "White Space" Database Test

The first of ten database administrators has posted the results of a 45-day test.

We reported back in September about a test of the first database for “white space” devices meant to provide Wi-Fi-like service on unused TV channels. The database – developed by Spectrum Bridge Inc. – is intended to help prevent interference from those devices into TV receivers, wireless microphones, and other authorized users of the bands. The FCC invited public participation in a 45-day online test.

Spectrum Bridge has completed its trials and submitted a “summary report” about it to the Commission. The FCC, in turn, is now requesting public input on the test result and the summary report. The request includes links to the report and three attachments submitted by Spectrum Bridge. We have been unable to access the Spectrum Bridge report and attachments by using the links provided in the FCC’s release. Presumably this is just a slight technical glitch that the FCC will correct.  However, since the Commission’s notice came out just before the start of a three-day weekend, we thought our readers might appreciate some working links to the Spectrum Bridge materials now, to give them something to pore through over the long weekend. Here they are:

The Spectrum Bridge summary report

Attachment 1 – “Dashboard” (statistics concerning traffic to the Spectrum Bridge test site)

Attachment 2 – Registration Records

Attachment 3 – Comments

Attachment 3, in particular, makes for interesting reading. It reflects a number of comments, criticisms and inquiries submitted to Spectrum Bridge during the test, and Spectrum Bridge’s responses. Some of the problems identified in the test are troubling.  For instance, Spectrum Bridge’s database ignored, at least initially, some facilities whose licenses (a) appeared to have expired but (b) were actually still in effect because of pending litigation relative to renewal of the licenses.  But it does appear that Spectrum Bridge was responsive to the problems. We shall see.

Comments on the Spectrum Bridge report are due on November 28, 2011, and reply comments on December 5.

First "White Space" Database Ready for Testing

Anyone can visit the test site to try out the white space channel availability calculator, the wireless microphone registration utility, and other functions.

Those long-promised “white space” devices, delivering super-Wi-Fi performance on locally unused TV channels, are moving a small step closer to reality.

The delay in actual availability – initial rules were adopted almost three years ago – results from the fact that these devices must protect several other services from interference. The main mechanism to achieve that protection is a set of databases that list the locations and frequencies of the services entitled to protection. A white space device is supposed to check in with a database for a safe frequency assignment before transmitting. The first of those databases is now ready for testing.

The services that qualify for protection, and which hence must be listed in the databases, are:

  • broadcast television stations (including full power, TV translator, low power TV, and Class A stations);
  • fixed broadcast auxiliary service links;
  • receive sites (and received channels) of TV translator, low power TV and Class A TV stations and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs);
  • private land mobile radio service and commercial mobile radio service operations
  • offshore radio telephone service operations;
  • radio astronomy operations at specific sites; and
  • certain wireless microphone operations.

The FCC has approved ten database administrators to keep track of these services. The idea is for each administrator to set up its own separate database. Each of the ten will extract information on protected services from the FCC’s licensing databases, or from the rules (except for some MVPD and wireless microphone information, which must be entered by hand by interested parties). This information need be entered into only one database, which will automatically share that information with the other nine – so that, as a result, all ten reflect the same protected services. Similarly, no matter which of the ten databases a white space device chooses to consult, it should get back the same information on available channels.

That is the theory, at least. Coordinating ten very large, constantly changing databases, each of a different fundamental design, is likely to present problems in practice.

The first of the ten databases is now ready for a 45-day period of public testing. Beginning on September 19, anyone can visit this site to test the white space channel availability calculator, the cable headend and broadcast auxiliary temporary receive site registration utilities, and the wireless microphone registration utility. Unfortunately the all-important sharing function among databases is not yet ready to try out.

Give it a try, and let us know what you find.

White Spaces Update: OMB Signs Off on Information Collections

One small step for white spaces technology . . .

The long-running, slow-paced white spaces proceeding has quietly moved ahead with OMB approval of the “information collection” requirements of Sections 15.713, 15.714, 15.715 and 15.717. Notice of that approval has just been published in the Federal Register. That means that the FCC may implement those requirements, effective now.

But don’t run down to your local Radio Shack looking for miracle white spaces devices just yet. Before the Commission can start to unleash the power of the white spaces, it’s got to settle on a database design. While the Commission has at least identified its initial corps of database managers – originally a nine-member team to which a late-arriving Microsoft was recently added as a tenth – the system which those managers will be charged with implementing is still a work in progress.

Check back here for updates.

And Microsoft Makes Ten

Microsoft decided it, too, wants to be a wireless TV Band Device database administrator.  Well, so do we.

The FCC spent calendar year 2010 studying applications from nine companies that want to be wireless TV Band Device (TVBD) database administrators. The successful applicants will coordinate devices, when they become available, that operate in TV “white space” frequencies. 

Some of the nine applicants, like Google and Comsearch, have enormous expertise in large databases, while some of the others do not.

Last January the FCC, rather than pick winners and losers, simply approved all nine companies that applied.

A few weeks ago Microsoft decided it, too, wants to be a database administrator. Never mind that Microsoft came to this realization 15 months after the application deadline, and three months after the FCC’s decision naming the other nine administrators. Never mind the FCC’s insistence on deadlines in other contexts. (Try sending in your FCC license renewal 15 months after it was due.) Microsoft for some reason gets a pass, not to mention full consideration of its application: the Commission has invited comments on Microsoft’s proposal. “We intend to consider designating Microsoft as a TV bands database administrator,” says the FCC’s public notice.   After all, it continues, Microsoft representatives attended both of the FCC’s database administrator workshops. With a track record like that, why should deadlines matter?

Omitted from the public notice, although possibly a factor in the FCC’s thinking, is that Microsoft, along with a hardware company, demonstrated a TVBD system at the National Association of Broadcasters show in April. The set-up included Microsoft’s prototype white-space database software, which sounds impressive. But the actual operations involved exactly one base station, one client station, and one pretend signal entitled to protection – a far cry from an actual working system in the real world.

Also omitted from the public notice, but probably not a factor in the FCC’s thinking, is Microsoft’s own observation that becoming a database administrator would “enable it to assist its customers in bringing many white spaces applications to market quickly and efficiently.” So what’s good for Microsoft is good for . . . um, Microsoft.

We have no doubt that Microsoft’s qualifications equal or exceed those of at least some of the nine companies selected earlier. Not obvious, though, is that Microsoft’s qualifications are so overwhelming as to justify re-opening the application process after more than a year. Hey, if it’s that easy, we might put in an application ourselves, and make some extra money at home in our spare time. And maybe Microsoft can help us with that long-overdue FCC license renewal.

White Spaces Reminder: Deadline For Registering Distant OTA Receive Sites Fast Approaching

Initial deadline: April 5, 2011

If you’re a TV licensee providing over-the-air feeds to one or more distant translator/LPTV/Class A stations, cable head-ends or satellite local receive sites, heads up. You need to act soon if you want reception of your signal at those sites to be protected from unlicensed devices operating in the TV band. April 5, 2011 is the deadline for TV stations with receive sites more than 80 kilometers beyond their protected contour to seek a waiver of the Commission’s geographic limitation to be able to register such receive locations. Note: this is a one-time-only opportunity.

Back in 2008, when the Commission adopted rules to govern the operation of unlicensed devices in the so-called “TV white spaces”, it sought to protect existing TV operations by establishing a database in which certain locations requiring protection could be registered. While receive locations that happen to be within a TV station’s protected service area were already routinely protected, that wasn’t the case for receive sites serving distant TV translator/LPTV/Class A TV stations, satellite or cable (MVPD) services, all of which deliver the signal to viewers outside the originating station’s protected contour. The Commission decided to protect, within reasonable bounds, the ability of such stations and services to receive programming over-the-air for retransmission.  “Within reasonable bounds” in this context meant within 80 kilometers of the originating TV station’s protected contour. Translator/LPTV/Class A stations and MVPD services with receive sites so located were thus allowed to register their sites in the TV bands device database.

On reconsideration, though, the FCC determined that some MVPD services and translator/LPTV/Class A stations relying on over-the-air reception to obtain and redistribute TV signals are located more than 80 kilometers from the originating TV station’s protected service contour. In order to avoid disruption in those circumstances, the Commission opted to expand the notion of “within reasonable bounds” temporarily: it provided a 90-day opportunity (commencing with the effective date of the rules) for MVPD’s, TV translator, LPTV and Class A TV stations to request a rule waiver to allow them to register their receive locations in the TV bands devices database. This opportunity is available only for locations at which the TV programming is received over-the-air more than 80 kilometers from the originating station’s protected contour.

The initial 90-day waiver request filing period will expire on April 5, 2011. (Facilities that meet the geographic standards but don’t get licensed until later will have 90 days, starting with commencement of operation, to file for a waiver.)

Waiver requests should demonstrate how the operation of an unlicensed device near the relevant receive site would act to disrupt current patterns of television viewing. After a waiver request is received, the FCC will put it out for public comment and then will make a determination as to whether it will be granted.

The Commission has not yet provided any special instructions for the filing of such a waiver request.  Check back here for updates on that score. But absent any such instructions, it would appear that filing through the Secretary’s office with a reference to ET Docket Nos. 02-380 and 04-186 should do the trick. Electronic filing in the dockets might also be a possibility – but, again, the FCC hasn’t given any guidance yet. We’ll post a follow-up on this as developments warrant.

White Space Database Administrator Sweepstakes - Everybody's A Winner! (Except Maybe Affected Spectrum Users)

Nine companies will compete while sharing responsibilities and data.

You know those T-ball games for very young children where everyone is declared a winner and everyone takes home a trophy?

Keep that in mind for a few minutes.

The FCC, as our readers know by now, has authorized wireless TV Band Devices (TVBDs) that will operate in the “white spaces” on the TV frequency map – i.e., on TV channels that have no local TV station. Proponents, who like to call these devices “Wi-Fi on steroids,” claim they will boost the availability of wireless services with extended range, fewer dead spots, and improved speeds, promote rural broadband, aid education and medicine, and further spectrum efficiency. And create jobs. And also clear up that annoying rash.

As a condition of operation, the millions of expected TVBDs will have to avoid causing interference to active TV stations, the many wireless microphones that share the TV band, and certain TV reception sites. To do this, most will consult a complex and changing database that indicates where TVBDs can safely operate. The existence of a database in turn presupposes one or more “database administrators.” Last November, the FCC invited interested parties to submit applications for that role.

Nine companies responded. Some, like Google and Comsearch, have enormous expertise in constructing and maintaining large databases. The qualifications of some others are less obvious.

The FCC made its choice by not making a choice: It approved all nine applicants as database administrators, with the expectation they will compete among themselves for business.

This inclusive non-decision may reflect the FCC’s often-expressed distaste for “picking winners and losers.” Or it might follow from the FCC’s having neglected to state, at the outset, the criteria it would use for selection, an omission that leaves it vulnerable to challenge from the losers. This problem does not arise, of course, if there are no losers.

One applicant and a wireless microphone coalition challenged the impartiality of some other applicants. The FCC responded with a stern injunction against the administrators engaging in anti-competitive practices, and a promise of careful oversight.

Here at CommLawBlog, we have two concerns.

The FCC could have decided to manage the database itself. It certainly knows how; it keeps close track of millions of licenses. The FCC opted instead to farm out the work. With one or two administrators, that might have been a labor-saving move. But riding herd on nine of them, some inexperienced, each working with a database built to a different design, might turn out to be more work for the FCC than just doing the job on its own.

The other problem relates to data quality. Each administrator will keep its own database, but all nine must reflect the same underlying reality. Some of the data are slow-moving and should be easy to maintain – TV station contours, for example, and locations of protected TV receive sites, such as cable TV headends and TV translators. Potentially more troublesome, though, will be wireless microphone users’ frequent and changing registrations as they sign up for short-term interference protection at sporting events, political events, concerts, etc. These data will be volatile.

Suppose NBC, say, as part of its planning to cover an event, logs on to its preferred database administrator and registers a few dozen wireless microphones by date, time, place, and TV channel number. That information must be made available to every TVBD in the vicinity of the event, through every database administrator. Accordingly, the administrator receiving the registration must quickly and accurately disseminate it to the other eight, in a form that allows easy incorporation into their own, differently-designed databases. This kind of coordination is hard enough among two or three parties. We wonder whether nine can bring it off reliably.

And those nine will be competitors after the same business. It may become tempting for some to try making the others look bad by feeding them bad (or late) information. Even greater will be the temptation to cut costs by using ill-trained and badly supervised staff. Just as the hygiene of a shared kitchen quickly sinks to the level of the sloppiest person using it, so will the quality of the shared data reflect the least careful administrator.  (Users may appreciate the lower cost . . . at least until they realize that you do, in fact, get what you pay for.) 

To say, “You’re all winners!” is fine for T-ball. But maintaining a large and critical database takes real skill and a large measure of dedication. We may all come to wish the FCC had exercised greater adult authority in making its choices.

Update: White Spaces Rules To Become Effective January 5, 2011*

* but NOT “information collection” rules or, as a practical matter, any white spaces rules dependent on existence of any FCC-blessed white spaces database

As we reported last September the Commission disposed of 17 petitions for reconsideration of its white spaces rules, and thereby set the stage for getting those rules up and running. Or so many folks may have thought. But no job is ever done until the paperwork is wrapped up, and the mere release of the Second Memorandum Opinion and Order didn’t do the trick – such items must first be published in the Federal Register.

That publication has now happened . . . so most – but not all – the white spaces rules are now officially set to take effect on January 5, 2011.

Why not all? Because a number of the rules – specifically, §§15.713, 15.714, 15.715 and 15.717 – involve “information collections” which can’t be implemented before the OMB approves them. So those particular rules are not subject to the January 5 effective date.

But even though we now have an official effective date, we probably won’t be seeing white spaces gear screaming off the shelves and improving all of our lives right away. That’s because the white spaces rules depend in large measure on the existence of a national white spaces database compiled and maintained by a manager . . . and the Commission has yet to sign off on a database system or select a manager. While there have been some indications that progress is being made on those fronts and that we might see some developments real soon, the roll-out of virtually all white spaces devices will, as a practical matter, be on hold until the FCC wraps up the necessary paperwork on that part of the process.

White Space Wite-Out®

It’s okay; we all make mistakes.

The FCC’s recent order on white space devices, which we reported on here, and followed up on here, had a few glitches. The FCC has now released a longer-than-usual erratum clearing them up.

A Closer Look At Some White Spaces Fine Print

Protection of TV STAs overlooked; Potential protection of LPTV, TV translator, cable, etc. OTA-receive sites expanded

Poring over the fine print of the FCC’s “white spaces” decision we wrote about last week, we have found two issues that merit the attention of TV broadcasters.

White spaces devices, of course, will operate on vacant TV channels and will have to protect TV broadcast stations. Each device will consult a database to determine which TV channels can be safely used at the device’s location. Devices may have to change channels as necessary from time to time to afford the required protection.

Since the selection of vacant channels will be a dynamic process, the FCC wants to make sure that only channels actually in use by TV stations are marked as off-limits. So, for example, channels occupied by unbuilt TV construction permits would be available for white spaces devices, since, being unbuilt (and, thus, inoperative), the TV CPs would not be subject to any actual interference. With that in mind, the new rules provide that the white spaces database need recognize only granted or pending license applications for both full and low power TV stations.

Whoops.  What about Special Temporary Authorizations (STAs)?

STAs are not a rarity. They are routinely issued to, say, stations that suddenly lose their transmitter sites or that suffer equipment damage during a storm. LPTV stations may well need STAs during the process of transitioning from analog to digital operation – a transition that the FCC is proposing to make mandatory. An STA allows the station to continue to operate – possibly from an alternate site or with facilities other than those specified in its license (or license application) – until it can either (a) return to its authorized site/facilities or (b) obtain permanent authority for its modified site/facilities.

The Commission’s failure to include STAs in the white spaces database appears to be a serious slip. Operation pursuant to an STA is Commission-authorized broadcast operation which should be protected from white spaces devices to the same degree as “licensed” operation.  This error seems to us to merit a petition for reconsideration by the TV industry.

The other issue involves TV translators, LPTV stations, cable systems and other multichannel video programming distributors (let’s call them, collectively, “retransmitters”). As might be expected, retransmitters  retransmit other stations’ signals, signals which are generally received by the retransmitter over-the-air. If a white spaces device cranks up near the point at which the retransmitter ordinarily picks up the signal, the retransmitter’s ability to effectively operate is threatened.

The Commission recognizes this problem. In the 2008 version of the white spaces rules, the Commission permitted some (but not all) retransmitters to register their over-the-air receive sites in the white spaces database – but only if those sites were (a) within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the originating station’s service contour but (b) outside that station’s protected contour. Now, however, at the suggestion of a number of parties the Commission has expanded the area in which receive sites may be registered. That expansion, though, is not gotcha free. 

Under the newly-announced revisions to the rules, all (not just some) retransmitters with over-the-air receive sites more than 80 kilometers from the edge of the received station’s protected service contour may submit waiver requests seeking to have those receive sites registered. The Commission will then issue a public notice soliciting comments on such waiver requests. After reviewing everything that comes in, the Commission will decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to include each such site in the database.

Existing operators who may wish to take advantage of this potential registration opportunity should be particularly alert. Starting with the effective date of the new rules, such operators will have 90 days in which to submit their waiver requests. (Retransmitters who commence operations in the future will have 90 days from the date on which they start up.) The Commission has not provided a time frame during which its resolution of such requests can be expected.

The effective date of the new rules has not yet been announced, and won’t occur (at the earliest) until 30 days after the new rules have been published in the Federal Register. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the Commission will invite new registrations (or registration waiver requests) until a number of practical questions relating to the white spaces database have been resolved. For example, who will manage the database, how will registrations and the like be submitted, how will the database be implemented? Obviously, there is still much to be done before white spaces devices are likely be unleashed on us all.

FCC Okays White Space Devices

New rules eliminate back-up protection for TV stations and wireless microphones.

The FCC has ruled on 17 petitions for reconsideration of the TV “white spaces” rules. This action allows unlicensed wireless networks and devices – “Wi-Fi on steroids,” some call them – to operate on locally vacant TV channels, called “white space” frequencies because they show up as white areas on maps of frequency usage. 

The FCC earlier tried to rename the gadgets “TV band devices,” or TVBDs, but the white space nomenclature is hard to shake.

Whatever the name, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Dell Computer are drooling at the prospect. They have told the FCC to expect a lot of hot spots and campus networks, and they are using all the right technical and political buzzwords.   Here in the CommLawBlog bunker, though, we're accustomed to dazzling PowerPoint that never materializes into actual products, so we tend to take a wait-and-see attitude.

The technical problems with white space devices center on avoiding interference to TV stations and the wireless microphones that have long used vacant TV channels. The original plan called for each device both to use geolocation – ascertaining its own position using GPS and consulting a database to find locally vacant channels – and also to “sniff” for TV stations and wireless microphones, a process called spectrum sensing. (The FCC exempted from geolocation certain devices under the control of other devices and, separately, allowed for the possibility of some sensing-only devices.)

The new decision confirms the geolocation requirement, with many critical details still to be fleshed out by the Office of Engineering and Technology. But the FCC has pulled back on sensing. When it tested spectrum sensing technologies several months ago, none of them worked well. This result surprised us, as white space proponents had touted sensing as the ultimate safeguard against interference. In some other universe, the agency might insist the promised technology function properly before it allowed deployment. This universe, though, works differently: the FCC’s spectrum-exploding train will not be de-railed, so they simply dropped the sensing requirement for devices that use geolocation.

Sensing-only devices are still allowed, but only under very rigid technical constraints that will be hard for manufacturers to satisfy. Because database checking will usually be the sole feature for avoiding interference, the FCC promised a rigorous certification procedure to make sure devices handle this function properly. Again, no details.

The FCC struggled, with only limited success, to accommodate users of wireless microphones in broadcasting, theater, movie-making, sporting events, and public gathering places like churches and auditoriums. The FCC will reserve two TV channels in each geographic area for wireless microphones, which it thinks will accommodate 12-16 microphone voice channels. Some parts of the country will also have other channels closed to white space devices and available for wireless microphones. Large productions, though, often use 100 or more. Microphone operators may request to have specific events entered into the white space database, which should (if all goes according to plan, that is) automatically keep white space devices away. Requests to protect unlicensed microphones must show that the channels free of white space devices cannot do the job. These requests will be subject to public comment, which requires 30 days advance notice. Without a database entry, and in the absence of spectrum sensing, the microphones will have no protection against white space devices on the same channel. 

In the end, the FCC believes wireless microphones should move to more efficient digital technology. But it did not address the difficult engineering problems that so far have barred this option.

The question of using vacant TV channels for backhaul links in rural areas is deferred.

Read the FCC’s news release on the decision and the full text of the White Spaces order.

[Blogmeister's Note:  This post has been updated as of 9/24/10 to provide additional information culled from the full text of the Commission's white spaces order.]

FCC Heading For The White Open Spaces

Upcoming Commission meeting may finally give green light to new technology

The FCC has announced that it plans to take up the long-pending white space proceeding at its upcoming September 23 meeting. Since that proceeding has been largely out of the spotlight for the better part of 18 months, it seemed a good idea to remind our readers, and ourselves, of the issues on the table in the white space proceeding and how the Commission has addressed those issues to date.

The white space proceeding started in 2002 with a reasonably straight-forward premise. Every city has dozens of TV channels, with exceptional propagation characteristics, sitting empty. Why not use them for something?  Low-power, unlicensed wireless devices operating on these unused channels – channels dubbed “white spaces” because they show up in white on a frequency map – could be deployed for a variety of uses, thereby increasing the efficient use of the spectrum. What’s not to like?

In theory, the concept looks great. But in practice, potential problems abound.

The primary concern, of course, is interference to other spectrum users. Each unlicensed device constitutes a potential source of interference if its operator happens to turn it on in the wrong place at the wrong time. And because the device is unlicensed, neither the FCC nor the victim of the interference will have any easy way of identifying the source of the interference. 

The white space proceeding has thus been an effort to take advantage of the potential for wide-spread use of low-power, unlicensed devices on TV frequencies while protecting licensed users of those frequencies. Those licensed users include not only TV stations, but also wireless microphone users (a broad universe which includes not only TV and movie producers, but also churches, theaters and live music venues).

Back in 2002 the Commission kicked things off with a Notice of Inquiry relating to the possible use of portions of the TV band for unlicensed use. From that beginning, the Commission released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2004, which led to a First Report and Order in 2006, and then a Second Report and Order in 2008. The Commission’s deliberations were complicated by the fact that, throughout this time, the TV band was in the process of the digital transition, a process which wasn’t completed for full-power stations until June, 2009.

Meanwhile, a range of white space gadgets – now renamed “television band devices” (TVBDs) – was being developed by various proponents eager to get in on the ground floor of what many perceive to be a singular opportunity to create vast new and lucrative markets. In 2007, and again in 2008, the Commission tested out a number of prototype TVBDs in the field and in its lab. The goal was to see whether the devices could provide protection against interference.

The FCC advanced two basic approaches to interference protection. In one, the TVBD is capable of: (a) accurately identifying its own location (through GPS technology); and (b) cross-checking that location against a database of existing licensed spectrum users in that area. That cross-check process would preclude use of any frequency already licensed for use within a certain area. In the second approach, the TVBD is equipped with sensing capability allowing it to “sniff out” other uses of the TV band and automatically switch channels to avoid interference to such other uses.

Through several rounds of testing – testing which did not necessarily duplicate all real-world conditions – the “sniff out” technology did not fare particularly well. Still, the FCC concluded that the results demonstrated a “proof of concept”. In 2008 it adopted rules to authorize TVBDs under certain conditions. (As my colleague Mitchell Lazarus observed at the time, the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk also demonstrated the feasibility of powered, heavier-than-air, flight as a “proof of concept”, but it still took 30 more years for the check-in lines to form at O’Hare.)

The 2008 rules did not give an unequivocal green light to TVBDs, however. The rules imposed three constraints:

  • Operation is flatly prohibited on certain channels, and in certain areas, and on some channels in some areas.
  • Every TVBD must know where it is, and have a current list of open channels for that location, or else it must operate under the direct control of a TVBD having that information. (Manufacturers can bypass this rule by undertaking extra procedures; see below).
  • Every TVBD must sense the spectrum for incumbents on the channel it is using.

The details were stringent. Device locations, for example, must be determined to within 50 meters, a requirement that only GPS can fulfill today. The catalog of available channels must be updated at least daily. Sensing must achieve a detection level of -114 dBm, equivalent to 0.004 trillionths of a watt – yet even this sensitivity could miss TV signals that are viewable with a good outdoor antenna.

Under the rules, TVBDs must be certified by the FCC before they can be marketed. To protect incumbent users of the TV band from millions of interference-causing renegade TVBDs, the Commission added extraordinary steps to the usual certification process. First, the manufacturer must test the device itself. Next, the Commission re-runs the tests, both in its lab and then again on the mean streets of America. Finally, the Commission seeks public comment on the TVBDs’ test results.  Only after the successful conclusion of this stringent certification process would the Commission permit the importation and sale of any TVBD.

While the rules were technically adopted in 2008, they have not, for the most part, yet taken effect.   Approval by the Office of Management and Budget is necessary before crucial elements of the new rules can be implemented. (Those crucial elements include the rules concerning the database of occupied channels and the procedures for approving sensing-only devices.) Also, to the extent that the protection system requires the existence of a comprehensive, accurate, frequently-updated database which TVBDs may check against, TVBDs can’t be rolled out until that database is in place. To date, that database is still on the drawing boards. (The Commission did invite proposals for the design and maintenance of such a database in November, 2009.)

Also, the Commission still has to resolve issues raised in 17 petitions seeking reconsideration of the 2008 rules. The petitioners include:

  • broadcast-related interests who seek a return to square one, arguing that the record does not support any unlicensed devices on TV channels;
  • LPTV stations that lack needed protection for still-ongoing analog operations;
  • petitioners objecting to a great many specific technical rules, including emission limits, separation requirements, sensing levels, power levels for first-adjacent channels, special procedures for sensing-only devices, and fixed base station heights, among others;
  • cable satellite TV providers that claim inadequate protection for headends and cable-ready TV sets; and
  • those presenting other issues: real-time operation of the database that catalogs available TV channels; database information security and registration requirements; pending negotiations with the Mexican government; rejected proposals, such as licensed use of white space frequencies; and too many more to list here.

Additionally, an appeal of the rules is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, although that has been held in abeyance while the FCC works through the reconsiderations and database development.

So when the Commission rolls up its sleeves to tackle the white space proceeding at its September 23 meeting, it will theoretically be trying to (a) resolve the pending petitions for reconsideration and (b) get the database set up. 

While those are already complex problems, they are further complicated by the brooding omnipresence that casts its shadow on everything the Commission does these days: the National Broadband Plan (NBP). The NBP expressly recommended that the Commission move forward with the white-spaces proceeding. That makes sense, since the NBP is all about increasing the efficient use of spectrum while encouraging technological innovation. 

But the NBP also entails the possibility – if not substantial likelihood – that the FCC may reallocate up to 120 MHz of TV spectrum for broadband use. That in turn would require “repacking” of the remaining TV spectrum by moving existing TV stations from the reallocated spectrum to channels in the remaining TV band. The repacking process would almost certainly increase congestion in the TV band, which could reduce available white space and thus complicate the roll-out of white space devices.

There is much at stake in the highly technical, highly contentious white space proceeding. The Commission has thus far struggled to strike a workable balance between protection of incumbent licensees and the desire to unleash innovative TVBD services. Presumably that struggle continues.   Just among ourselves, we think it might even continue beyond the September 23 meeting.

Get Out Your Crayons and Glue Stick: It's Design-a-Database Time

Regular readers know that the FCC adopted rules to allow new, unlicensed, wireless devices to operate in unused channels of the broadcast television spectrum just over a year ago. This was an exciting development for wireless broadband access and content providers, but incumbent users (such as television broadcasters and wireless microphone operators) worried about interference. Therefore, the FCC required that white space devices – which it calls “TV band devices” – must prevent interference by having both spectrum-sensing capability and also geo-location capability with access to a database of licensed users. The idea is that a device will: (a) access a database; (b) let the data base know where the device happens to be located;  and (c) receive a list of available frequencies for that location.  As an additional safeguard, devices will also detect other users and drop off their frequencies.  A separate and more stringent procedure will authorize “sensing only” devices that lack geo-location.

Obviously, establishing a database is a crucial step in the process of designing and testing these new devices because they must be able to interface with it.  Accordingly, on November 25, 2009, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology issued a Public Notice “inviting proposals from entities seeking to be designated TV band database managers.”  

This is in part a creative design competition: the FCC specifies only that each design must include “basic functional architecture . . . a data repository, a data registration process, and a query process.” Beyond that, prospective database managers are limited only by the scope of their imaginations and the number of pipe cleaners they can grab off the craft table.

Each applicant must provide: 

  • A demonstration of sufficient technical expertise;
  • A demonstration of a viable business plan;
  • The scope of the database functions it plans to perform;
  • If the plan involves multiple databases, a description of how data will be synchronized;
  • If the plan involves multiple entities, information on other involved entities and their business relationship with the applicant; and
  • A description of the methods (e.g., interfaces, protocols) to be used by devices to communicate with the database, including any security measures.

Proposals must be submitted by January 4, 2010. They will presumably be made available for review by the public soon thereafter, because the Commission has also invited comments (due February 3, 2010) and replies (due February 18, 2010) on the proposals. Sharpen those crayons, because we expect that neatness will count.

"White Space" Battle to Go At Least Another Round

Reconsideration petitions in the FCC’s “white space” proceeding – about unlicensed devices in locally vacant TV channels – show the controversy is far from over.

After carefully studying 35,000 comments, dating back to 2002, the FCC issued an order last November that tried mightily to balance the rights and interests of TV broadcasters and viewers, manufacturers and users of the wireless microphones in TV spectrum, would-be manufacturers and users of the new unlicensed devices, and cable companies, along with many other groups that shouldered their way into the proceeding. We reported on the outcome here.    

And everybody went home happy. Except the nineteen parties and groups, representing every facet of the proceeding, that last week formally asked the FCC to reconsider its decision. They include:

  • broadcast-related interests who seek a return to square one, arguing that the record does not support any unlicensed devices on TV channels;
  • LPTV stations that lack needed protection for ongoing analog operations;
  • petitioners objecting to a great many specific technical rules, including emission limits, separation requirements, sensing levels, power levels for first-adjacent channels, special procedures for sensing-only devices, fixed base station heights, and many others;
  • cable satellite TV providers that claim inadequate protection for headends and cable-ready TV sets; and
  • those presenting other issues: real-time operation of the database that catalogs available TV channels; database information security and registration requirements; pending negotiations with the Mexican government; rejected proposals, such as licensed use of white space frequencies; and too many more to list here.

In addition to these petitions are the court cases brought against the same rules by broadcasters and users of wireless microphones. Details are here. The cases have since been consolidated into one, which will likely be set aside for the year or two (or more) it will take the FCC to resolve the reconsiderations.

The FCC will soon ask for comments on the reconsideration petitions. We’re running a pool here in the commlawblog bunker. The number 35,000 is taken.

Opponents Toss White Space to Courts

Back in November, the FCC adopted rules that will eventually allow unlicensed communications devices to use vacant TV channels: the so-called “white space” frequencies. We outlined the details here. It took another three months for the rules to make their official debut in the Federal Register. Some of the rules (although not the ones that matter most) take effect in late March. Details are here.   

The February 17 publication in the Federal Register opened the window for aggrieved parties to object to the rules in court. Some have done so.  Two associations of broadcasters, long concerned about unlicensed devices causing interference to TV reception, filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But TV stations are not the only licensed users of TV frequencies. The wireless microphones widely used for movie and TV production, and at music and sports venues, operate on vacant TV frequencies and could be crowded out by unlicensed devices. A few groups that make heavy use of the microphones – ESPN, the major professional sports leagues, and New York theater owners and producers – filed their own appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The two cases will eventually be consolidated into one.

The appeals do not alter when the rules take effect unless a party requests and receives a stay from either the Commission or the court. This is a rare event.

Another way to complain about the rules is to formally ask the FCC to reconsider its decision. The deadline for doing that falls on March 19. If anyone takes that route, the courts are likely to hold their cases in abeyance until the FCC has completed reconsideration. That typically takes 1-2 years. The court proceedings, if still necessary after the FCC's second look, will take a year past that. One possible outcome of an appeal is a remand to the FCC for further proceedings, which will take another 1-2 years, possibly followed by still another court appeal.

Technology has a way of moving forward despite the tortuous workings of the FCC and the courts. (Maybe the engineers are just better focused than the lawyers.) As the legal processes grind on, new technical developments, along with people's evolving preferences, may give us new ways to use the spectrum that could leave today’s litigants arguing over what will soon be yesterday's problems. But until then, we will keep you posted as the story unwinds.

White Space Update: Some Rules To Take Effect March 19

But the devil is still in the details – information collection requirements stall effectiveness of all the new rules, probably for months.

The TV “white space” rules appeared in the Federal Register on February 17, 2009, and will (at least according to the Federal Register) take effect in 30 days, on March 19 – which is about time, since the rules were adopted by the Commission several months ago.

Despite what the Federal Register says, however, certain of the rule sections involve new information collections and, because of that, require approval from the Office of Management and Budget. These will not take effect until further notice, probably at least a few months. They are the rules concerning the database of occupied channels and the procedures for approving sensing-only devices. Without these, the other rules are useless. The rules not taking effect on March 19 are Sections 15.713 (TV bands database), 15.714 (TV bands database administration fees), 15.715 (TV bands database administrator), and 15.717 (TV band devices that rely on spectrum sensing).

Even after these rules do take effect, we will not see white space devices on the market until well after the database is up and running. The FCC intends to request applications from entities interested in designing, setting up, and operating the database. But the selection process has not yet begun, with the large and complex task of implementation still to follow. Once started, the whole process will take many months, and possibly a year or more.

The Devil and the Details: FCC Adopts Elaborate White Space Rules

With extensive protections accorded to licensed operations, the ball is now in the white space proponents’ court

Thudding a 1.3 pound order on the press table late last Friday, the FCC not only ruined a lot of Washington weekends, but ended years of dispute by authorizing unlicensed devices on TV frequencies. A lot of the paper is taken up with the explanations and rationales needed to weatherproof against the inevitable court appeals. But the rules themselves still run to 15 single-spaced pages, making this by far the most complex regime for any unlicensed service.

Down here in the commlawblog bunker, we have long been doubtful that any workable set of rules could adequately protect TV stations and wireless microphones from interference. Poor device performance in recent engineering tests only deepened our skepticism. It does not happen often, but we could have been wrong. The FCC may have pulled it off.  Sure, there is always room to quibble over the numerical details – more channels for wireless microphones, lower detection thresholds, etc.  And we will have to wait and see how the Commission implements the new procedures and polices the marketplace for non-compliance. 

But the basic regulatory structure seems workable.

A rulemaking like this one – dropping new users into an occupied band – always involves a delicate trade-off between power and flexibility for the newcomer, on the one hand, versus protection for the incumbent, on the other. Here, once having made the decision to allow the devices at all, the FCC seems to have resolved most doubts – and there are a lot of them – in favor of the incumbents, and there are a lot of them, too. The new rules protect:

  • TV service (full-power digital, Class A and low power digital and analog, translators, boosters);
  • wireless microphones (and other low-power auxiliary devices);
  • two-way radio on channels 14-20 in thirteen major markets;
  • TV translator receive sites;
  • cable headends;
  • Broadcast Auxiliary Service fixed links;
  • Offshore Radiotelephone Service;
  • Canadian and Mexican border areas;
  • radio astronomy and medical telemetry (TV channel 37); and
  • radio astronomy sites (all channels).

Controlling  interference to that many services necessarily puts a lot of constraints on TV band devices (TVBDs), as they are now known. The constraints are mainly of three kinds:

  • Operation is flatly prohibited on certain channels, and in certain areas, and on some channels in some areas.
  • Every TVBD must know where it is, and have a current list of open channels for that location, or else it must operate under the direct control of a TVBD having that information. (Manufacturers can bypass this rule by undertaking extra procedures; see below).
  • Every TVBD must sense the spectrum for incumbents on the channel it is using.

The details are stringent. Device locations, for example, must be determined to within 50 meters, a requirement that only GPS can fulfill today. The catalog of available channels must be updated at least daily. Sensing must achieve a detection level of -114 dBm, equivalent to 0.004 trillionths of a Watt – yet even this sensitivity could miss TV signals that are viewable with a good outdoor antenna.

Looking ahead, TVBD manufacturers may want to avoid the self-location requirement, and instead seek to protect incumbent services solely through sensing. Those products might work better inside buildings, where GPS does not penetrate well, and in less populated areas, where control signals from companion GPS-based devices might be hard to find. Unfortunately, it was just such sensing-only devices that fared the worst in testing.   The FCC is willing to allow them, but not until it is satisfied they can meet requirements that have eluded them so far.

Ordinarily FCC product certification is a private matter between the manufacturer and the FCC engineers. But this is not an ordinary rulemaking. Most FCC technical rules make it a straightforward matter to determine whether a candidate device complies. Here, though, being sensitive to the starkly differing interpretations that TVBD advocates and their opponents have put on past sensing-only test data, the FCC is adding extraordinary steps to the certification process. Rather than simply trust the applicant's own test results, the FCC will re-run the tests itself, not only in the laboratory, but also in the field. The testing will be open to the public. And the FCC will put the test results on public notice and invite comment. Any sensing-only devices that reach the market will have overcome unprecedented scrutiny.

The last two proceedings for new, unlicensed services – ultra-wideband and broadband over power line – prevailed at the FCC despite vehement opposition. But both fell short of expectations in the marketplace. Because TVBDs are closer to existing successful products, such as Wi-Fi, they may have an easier route to breaking that pattern. On the other hand, the FCC has set up formidable engineering challenges that are sure to appear in the price tag.

The TVBD advocates have what they asked for. Let’s see what they can do with it.

White Space Spectrum: Hard Questions Deferred

FCC embraces unprecedented device-by-device testing regimen

Engineering and politics do not mix well.

The FCC encountered that truth again this week when it authorized the use of unlicensed devices in vacant TV frequencies, the so-called "white space" spectrum.

The idea is controversial because unlicensed devices pose a potential risk both to TV reception and to the wireless microphones that use empty TV frequencies. The idea became more controversial three weeks ago when the FCC's own engineers released a report showing that white space devices might indeed cause interference, especially when an adjacent TV channel is in use.  The report concluded, however, that white space proponents had shown “proof of concept.”  The proponents seized on this language as establishing that white space devices could safely be deployed.  I noted then that the Wright brothers had established “proof of concept” at Kitty Hawk – that is, they proved the feasibility of powered, heavier-than-air flight.  But it still took another thirty years to develop safe, commercial air travel.  "Proof of concept" does not mean ready for everyday use.

We wanted to make this point to the FCC, along with some observations on the data.  But the FCC turned down requests to delay its decision long enough to receive public comment on the engineering report.  Yet just last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals sent a rulemaking back to the FCC for not taking comment on an engineering report.  The “studies upon which an agency relies . . . ,” said the court, “must be made available during the rulemaking in order to afford interested persons meaningful notice and an opportunity for comment.”  ARRL v. FCC, 524 F.3d 227, 237 (D.F. Cir. 2008).  That is pretty clear.  We can only speculate as to why the FCC did not follow those instructions this time.  Even if the aim was to beat the coming hand-over in Administration, there would still have been time for a brief comment period.

Instead, the FCC has (in effect) put off the hard technical decisions by adding extra layers to its approval procedures for white space products.  Devices that rely on sensing the spectrum for TV and microphone signals will have their applications released for public comment (this is a first), will be tested by the FCC in real-world environments (ditto), and will require approval by the full FCC, not just the engineering staff.  The all-important details of the required testing have not yet been disclosed.  But we can expect long, hard-fought battles, complete with extensive lobbying, over the first several devices submitted for approval.

White space devices that rely on “geolocation” – i.e., on location-finding via GPS, coupled with a database look-up for available channels – will have an easier approval process, on the theory that the technology has fewer unknowns.  But GPS has the serious downside of not working well indoors, which is where most people use their communications devices.  Manufacturers may find themselves forced into the more contentious approval regime for sensing devices in order to satisfy consumers' needs.

Despite this week's decision against them, the opponents of white space devices still have plenty of opportunity to press their case in the laboratories and conference rooms of the FCC, and possibly in court as well.  We can only hope that in future deliberations the decision-makers keep a better focus on the engineering.

Click here for a blog item (unlike this one) having actual facts on the FCC's white space decision and here for the FCC's news release.

FCC Rushes To Authorize White Space Use - Who Needs Facts?

It always looked good on paper. Every city has dozens of TV channels sitting empty. Why not use them for something? As Wi-Fi became popular, Wi-Fi-like unlicensed operation became the application of choice for these “white space” channels – so called because they show up in white on a frequency map. Big money signed on: Microsoft, Google, Motorola, and Intel, among others. Coalitions formed. Websites launched. Herds of dark-suited lawyers roamed the halls of the FCC.

As plans for digital TV took shape, the white space idea should have lost some of its gleam. Digital channels can be packed together much more tightly than analog – enough to have freed up 18 former TV channels for other uses. That leaves a lot less white space, and a lot less spectrum for white space devices. But this is Washington, after all, where policy routinely comes unhooked from the underlying facts. The proponents of white space devices continued to press their cause with undiminished fervor.

The prospect of millions of consumer-grade transmitters on TV frequencies makes two groups very nervous. One is the broadcast industry, which fears these products will stray into occupied TV channels and cause interference to viewers. Equally concerned are users of the wireless microphones licensed to TV and motion picture producers, and sometimes used also by other groups such as churches and live music venues. These microphones have long used vacant TV channels without causing harm, but are highly susceptible to interference from white space devices.

Not a problem! insisted the white space proponents. Their products, they said, could “sniff out” TV and microphone signals and thereby avoid any channels in use. To prove it, they handed over five prototypes to the FCC’s engineers for testing. Earlier prototypes had failed badly – some did not work at all – but the FCC tried again. It ran extensive studies both in its laboratory at Columbia, Maryland and at twelve field sites: a downtown-area office building, three residences, several suburban and rural locations, and major sports and entertainment venues.

This week the FCC released the results. The devices actually work pretty well under laboratory conditions, in spectrum that is utterly quiet except for one clean TV or wireless microphone signal. So those people who live in shielded laboratory chambers should expect no problems. But the rest of us may not fare as well. In particular, the presence of a TV signal on a channel adjacent to that being sensed tends to degrade the sensor’s performance badly, causing it to miss the signal on the channel it’s actually sniffing. Suppose a white space is checking channel 21, say, while a station is broadcasting on channel 22. The device stands a good chance of missing an active TV station or wireless microphone on channel 21, leading it to think it was clear to transmit on that channel. It would thereby cause interference to viewers of the TV station or users of the microphones it had overlooked.

Back to the drawing board, one might think. After all, this batch worked better than the last ones, so maybe the next generation will actually pass. But the FCC does not think that way. This is Washington, where facts don’t matter much. On the same day that it released the test results, the FCC announced plans for a vote at its November 4 meeting to authorize white space devices. There will be no opportunity for the public to study and respond to the test report first.

Perhaps because of doubtful results with the sensing approach, the FCC signaled its intent to authorize an alternative: the “geolocation” option. Before transmitting, each white space device would locate itself via GPS and consult a database to identify unused TV channels in that area. But GPS works poorly indoors, or not at all. Moreover, the database will omit wireless microphones, except perhaps at certain very large sporting events. The only geolocation device that the FCC tested is the size of a microwave oven, and may not work as well in a portable version. Given these limitations, the FCC also plans to allow devices that rely on sensing TV and wireless microphone signals, if they can be shown to work properly in field tests. The all-important details have not been announced.

We can only speculate on the FCC’s haste to authorize a technology that repeated and extensive testing has shown to be inadequate. True, the technical report found the tests had established “proof of concept.” But so did the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, yet no one was standing in line the next day to check luggage at O’Hare. The election that coincides with the FCC meeting date may be a factor. And we have no doubt that Microsoft et al. handled the lobbying, if not the engineering, with great skill. But the Commissioners should understand the importance of making sure these gadgets work properly before unleashing millions of them on a nation just trying to watch TV in peace.

White Space Testing Goes On . . . And On . . .

The FCC has announced yet another round of tests on TV "white space" mobile devices.  These products -- if they ever reach the market -- will be used for unlicensed, Wi-Fi-type communications on locally vacant TV channels.  The ongoing tests are intended to determine whether the devices can successfully avoid interfering with TV signals.

The FCC has proposed three mechanisms for avoiding occupied TV channels in a given area:

  • have the unlicensed device detect and avoid TV signals;
  • equip the unlicensed device with a GPS receiver and a table of occupied TV channels listed by location for automatic look-up; or
  • disable the unlicensed device unless it receives a "control signal" that identifies locally vacant channels.

The FCC has spent many months on laboratory tests of devices using various combinations of these techniques.  There has been no comprehensive report of the results, although the trade press has carried stories of some spectacular failures.

The FCC has now announced plans to move out of the laboratory to commence field testing.  Ten locations are specified:  a state park, an airport observation area, two suburban residences, an office building, and five rural sites.

A separate set of tests, to be conducted at an unspecified sports venue and entertainment venue, will evaluate compatibility with the original white-space technology:  wireless microphones that operate on unused TV frequencies.

The press seems to think these tests will settle once and for all whether white-space devices can coexist with broadcast television.  More likely, one side or the other -- maybe both -- will challenge the assumptions underlying the test procedures, and will question the FCC's interpretation of the numerical results.  Rather than end the debate, the test results will simply push it into a new phase.