FCC to Vote on ‘Super Wi-Fi’ White Spaces

The industry has come to refer to white spaces as Wi-Fi on steroids—for their ability to offer larger-scale wireless Internet service—and the name seems ever more appropriate, given current FCC plans. The commission expects to vote this week to open up TV channels to make room for those white spaces, a move greeted by applause from computer companies and concerns from wary broadcasters who see the FCC muscling in on their spectrum.

According to a top official, the FCC will take a number of steps to protect broadcast TV station signals and wireless-microphone users, including newsgatherers, NFL games and Broadway shows, from its new final rules, which will allow unlicensed devices to share the spectrum between DTV channels. But the commission is also proposing to reduce the buffer between licensed and unlicensed users, and will count on a database being run by an outside entity to keep everything straight.

The FCC official, who spoke on background to B&C, said the order proposes to prevent mobile unlicensed devices from operating below channel 21 (the DTV channels at issue are 2- 51). The order would further allow “major events” to register in a database as off-limits for use by unlicensed devices, though it would reduce the buffer zone around them to 400 meters. This would carve out channels for use by electronic newsgatherers, such as micwielding TV station reporters in the field; set aside channels for unlicensed wireless microphones but not confine them to those channels; and provide a buffer zone for channels used by cable set-top boxes.

There could still be some last-minute tweaks, but that order is what the FCC is expected to approve when it votes Sept. 23 on the proposal.

The FCC order that has been circulated to the commissioners also proposes to delete the requirement that unlicensed devices be able to remotely sense when they are straying into occupied airspace, instead of relying on the database. Broadcasters had wanted that extra protection.

But broadcasters, sports leagues and Broadway producers are concerned that there is not enough buffer zone or built-in protections to prevent potential interference to their TV station signals or wireless microphones.

That deletion of the remote sensing requirement would be a victory for computer companies, as would reducing the buffer zone around events, both of which had been pushed by Microsoft and Dell, among others. The National Association of Broadcasters had opposed getting rid of the remote sensing requirement, saying that the FCC had not properly tested the ability of the database to protect “millions of TV receivers and licensed microphones.” That means protection for DTV stations, NFL games and reporters with wireless microphones will come down to how well the database registry is managed.

The official said that picking the database manager is not part of the planned order, though it could come simultaneously and, at any rate, will be decided in short order.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.