Companies granted waiver to deploy TV white space gear on farm equipment, farmhouses

deere tractor with screen&dish-1It happened again.

Just when the lawyers thought they finally had a regulatory scheme that works, the engineers came up with a new idea that doesn’t fit.

We recently wrote about this phenomenon in ultra-wideband technology, in an agricultural context. This time it’s TV White Space (TVWS) technology, once again on the farm. Historians and anthropologists tell us agriculture has been a major driver in technological innovation for the last 10,000 years of human history, so we should not be surprised that this remains true into the digital age.

TVWS devices (a/k/a TV Band Devices, or TVBDs) are unlicensed data transmitters that operate in locally vacant TV channels. (On a map of frequency usage, regions of non-use are typically shown in white – hence the name “white spaces”.) The regulatory challenge is to protect TV reception, wireless microphones, and other authorized TV band activity by making sure a TVWS device operates only on channels which, at its location, in fact are not being used by others.

To this end, the FCC has mandated a nationwide database of the locations of licensed and otherwise authorized users of TV spectrum. From that database, a device can determine which channels are available for TVWS use at any latitude and longitude in the country.

The rules authorize three kinds of TVWS equipment. First, you’ve got your fixed devices, which must operate at fixed locations (no surprise) and have Internet access to the TVWS database. Allowed relatively high power, up to 10 watts, they must either have built-in geolocation (such as GPS) or be professionally installed by someone who programs in the location. (Attentive readers will recall that the FCC is considering dropping the professional installation option.)

Second, you’ve got your personal/portable devices, which are limited to one-tenth of a watt and must either: (a) use geolocation and database access, or (b) get channel information from a nearby device that has these capabilities. The third alternative, which is not relevant here, comprises devices that avoid protected users by sensing activity in candidate TV channels; these are limited to 50 milliwattts and subject to stringent testing.

Developing these rules took the FCC more than a decade, with a lot of adjustments along the way, powered by huge amounts of work from FCC staff and interested parties. Now Deere & Company (brand name John Deere), which makes farm equipment, among other things, and electronics company Koos Technical Services (KTS) want to bend those rules.

Deere and KTS think TVWS is the right answer for data-driven farming applications that can transmit information about equipment operations and agronomic data (pertaining to, e.g., soil, planting, harvest, fertilizer, insecticide application, and moisture levels). Their waiver request seeks permission to use TVWS devices on board moving farm equipment to exchange these kinds of data both with other moving farm gear and with a stationary location they quaintly call “the farmhouse,” which we suspect looks more like the NORAD command center, if not the ultra-high-tech CommLawBlog bunker.

The FCC has responded with an order that waives the rules for Deere and KTS in several respects. They can use “fixed”-type TVWS on moving machinery in order to benefit from the higher permitted power levels (but only up to four watts), so long as the device re-registers with the TVWS database whenever it moves 50 meters after its last registration. (In contrast, personal/portable devices can travel up to 100 meters without a database recheck.) Rather than incorporate geolocation into the devices, as the rules require for “fixed” devices, Deere and KTS have permission to plug into the GPS-enabled system built into Deere farm machinery. Finally, where the rules require a fixed TVWS device to access the Internet either directly or through another fixed TVWS device, the Deere and KTS system may take multiple “hops” from one piece of farm machinery to another before reaching the Internet connection.

Grant of the waiver is subject to 14 specific conditions, and is premised in part on the common-sense observation that waivered devices will be used in rural areas and in large agricultural fields having few broadcasters and widely dispersed TV receivers. To make sure of this, the waiver is effective only in places where at least half the TV channels are available for TVWS device use – i.e., unused for TV and other protected services.

That last is bad news because, personally, we were hoping to use the waiver and some TVWS gear to stream the HGTV Channel across the lawn to our suburban John Deere riding mower. Maybe it’s just as well. The popcorn would bounce all over the place.