FCC Gives Web-Over-TV Device Thumbs Down

Microsoft, Google and other members of the White Spaces Coalition received a blow last week when the Federal Communications Commission rejected the device they proposed to allow wireless Internet transmissions over unused TV spectrum.

Known as a “white space device,” the technology is intended to tap into unlicensed and unused airwaves, with the potential to make Internet service more accessible and affordable in rural areas. Such devices could be allowed to use the TV spectrum once broadcasters make the final transition from analog to digital in early 2009.

In addition to Microsoft and Google, the White Spaces Coalition’s members also include Dell, HP, Intel, EarthLink and Samsung.

Inconsistent Detection

“The sample prototype white space devices submitted to the commission for initial evaluation do not consistently sense or detect TV broadcast or wireless microphone signals,” the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology’s report concluded. “Our tests also found that the transmitter in the prototype device is capable of causing interference to TV broadcasting and wireless microphones.”

While TV channels in the same area are always separated by unoccupied channels so as to prevent interference — those channels vary across geographic areas. As a result, white space devices must be able to tell when a channel is free before they start transmitting.

Confirming Suspicions

The FCC’s decision was hailed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which has long expressed concern over the possibility that portable, unlicensed devices could interfere with television broadcast signals.

“We appreciate FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s leadership and the thorough consideration of this important issue given by the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the trade group.

The FCC’s test results “confirm what NAB, MSTV (the Association for Maximum Service Television) and others have long contended: that the portable, unlicensed devices proposed by high-tech firms can’t make the transition from theory to actuality without compromising interference-free television reception,” he added.

Vowing to Try Again

Members of the White Spaces Coalition, however, say they will keep working until they come up with a device that passes the FCC’s tests. Indeed, the FCC’s report acknowledges that several possible features for minimizing the interference potential of white space devices, “such as dynamic power control and adjustment of power levels based on signal levels in adjacent bands,” were not included in the prototype devices tested, leaving the door open for revision.

“Coalition members are encouraged that FCC engineers did not find fault with our operating parameters and remain confident that unlicensed television spectrum can be used without interference,” the coalition said. “The next phase of direct dialogue with FCC engineers hopefully will enable our technical teams to learn more about the Commission’s approach to testing protocol and methodology.

“We will work with the Federal Communications Commission to resolve any open questions, quickly enabling the FCC to meet its October deadline and delivering on the common goal of driving innovation and expanding Internet access for all Americans,” the group added.

Door Still Open

“This is obviously a disappointment to the White Spaces Coalition, but the door is not completely closed,” Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

As increasing numbers of people access the Internet through nontraditional devices such as cell phones, “this is a very important and strategic market for all the big Internet companies,” Sterling added. “This becomes like a blood supply, and these companies want to have some control over it.”

Google, for example, has pushed hard to have a say over how the FCC auctions off the 700 MHz (megahertz) band spectrum early next year, while rumors abound about a forthcoming Google-branded “Gphone” wireless device.

Next Time Around?

White Spaces Coalition members will likely get the white space device up to the FCC’s standards on a subsequent version, analysts predicted.

“The FCC sent these companies back to the drawing board,” telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan told TechNewsWorld. “It didn’t work as well as they thought. Fortunately the technology isn’t for use for a couple years.

“This is one step in a multistep process,” Kagan added. “I think they will complete it, but not on the first pass.”

A Price for Consumers

The resulting device that ultimately makes it to market, however, may not be as attractive to consumers as originally planned.

“I’m not sure this is that major a setback to Google and the others,” Allen Nogee, principal analyst with In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld. “The device was just their initial presentation, so they’ll need to go back and revise it. That could set them back another six or so months to redesign and rethink their plan.”

The real downside for consumers, however, could be price, as the device will almost certainly be both more sophisticated and more expensive after the features to mitigate interference with existing TV channels are added, Nogee said.

Still in the Game

Google has already been disappointed at least to some extent by Martin’s decision on the auction rules for the 700 MHz band of spectrum, causing speculation about whether it will still participate. The FCC’s rejection of the white space device, while also negative, is unlikely to have a big impact on that question, however, Nogee added.

“This may play in,” he concluded, “but probably not so negatively as to cause the member companies to pull out.”

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