By Frank Wells.
It is a disappointing, if unsurprising, development. As you likely know, from this month’s cover story if not before, the FCC has approved unlicensed low-power consumer devices (WSDs, or White Space Devices) for operation in the areas of the broadcast television spectrum not lost to recent auctions and public service reassignment. Even the most hopeful of potential outcomes will mean less resources available for the operation of wireless microphone and communication devices, challenging the current application of conventional wireless technologies for major events and in crowded markets.
To protect broadcasters and pro wireless users from interference from these new devices, the original proposals called for spectrum-sensing technologies to sweep the ether for frequencies in use and then force WSDs to shift frequency, moving away from where interference is likely. Initial tests were mixed for protection of broadcast television signals and dismal for wireless microphone protection; it would be generous to consider the technology as having met proof of concept, let alone proof of performance.
The FCC adopted a “compromise,” a fraction of the protections proposed by our industry (kudos to Shure for its effort). Initially, these consumer devices will have to incorporate geolocation (GPS) capabilities and, based on an internet database, avoid listed “in use” frequencies for a given location. Just who will be allowed to register in-use frequencies is still vague (Carnegie Hall? The Minskoff Theater on Times Square? Likely so. The 300-member church around the corner? Unknown.). A small number of protected channels will be set aside for wireless mic and intercom use in a given market. When the mandate for geolocation expires (a time frame currently not defined), spectrum sensing alone will be relied upon.
The open adjacent channels that analog television needed to insure interference-free operation are a major reason so much of the spectrum was available for wireless microphone use in the past. As noted, the FCC auctioned off some of the TV spectrum to be freed by DTV efficiency. Verizon and ATT won the auction bidding (for some $14.7 billion, combined), and plan to use the space for fourth-generation LTE (Long Term Evolution) advanced cell phone and broadband services. Microsoft, Google and their ilk focused on freeing additional spectrum for unlicensed consumer device usage. Some telecommunications industry commentators suggest that this policy was designed deliberately for profit reasons-why pay for valuable spectrum when you can get it free?
Some good may come of the new commercial uses of white space spectrum, if only for consumers, through the broader availability of wireless internet connectivity. This may ultimately have been the undoing of our relatively small market of users-the ability to more effectively provide high-speed internet to millions overrode our industry’s concerns. Still, this touted end result (low-cost internet for the masses-though I consider the “low-cost” part of that vision an “I’ll believe it when I see it” promise) is somewhat tainted by the profit-making motives of those funding the lobbying, in many cases poorly veiled as consumer advocacy. And some of those advocates see widespread internet availability as achieving yet another goal that shadows the current consumer advocacy-the eventual elimination of free broadcast television in favor of moving all content online.
We have some time to adjust to this new order of things. Professional wireless end-users have already made adjustments in practices and in equipment used, avoiding bands soon to be officially off limits and DTV signals. Manufacturers are working with their customers to adapt/modify/replace gear operating in forbidden bands. The new consumer white spaces devices will trickle into the market (at first-a trickle ahead of a deluge), buying more time to adjust and for the NAB, mic makers and other interested parties to lobby for additional consideration. Let’s hope our meager share of the porridge sustains us-it will ultimately prove futile for us to ask, “Please, sir. I want some more.”