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MicrosoftTest-DeviceProblem Prompts War of Words on White Spaces

The National Association of Broadcasters Monday was celebrating the report that Microsoft withdrew one of its devices from the Federal Communications Commission's testing of unlicensed wireless devices that computer companies want to be able to share the digital-TV spectrum.

"New Microsoft Unlicensed Device Fails" read the headline on an NAB e-mail, while Microsoft countered that the problem was with the power supply, not the remote-sensing test, and that the FCC was continuing to test an essentially identical model that was working fine.

"By failing two out of two tests at the FCC," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said, "Microsoft and the Wireless Innovation Alliance have demonstrated that unlicensed devices are not ready for primetime."

The FCC proposed allowing the devices to operate in the so-called white spaces between DTV channels if they can do so without interfering with TV stations. Computer companies like Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Google and others said they can, while broadcasters are unconvinced, pointing to device failures in the FCC's first round of testing and now what they said was the failure of a Microsoft device in the current round of testing.

Ed Thomas, a partner with law firm Harris, Wiltsher & Grannis and a technical adviser to Microsoft, said the failure label was not accurate. He added that the device was sensing DTV signals and wireless microphones "just fine," but that a power problem caused the FCC to contact Microsoft and discontinue the test with that device. Thomas said the commission decided to continue testing another, "eletronically identical device" that was also submitted.

The devices are not prototypes of the portable devices, he said, but "test beds" for their sensing capabilities.

Microsoft also had problems with a device in the first round of testing -- in that instance, the problem was with the sensing -- but Thomas, a former FCC chief engineer, said that in that case, the first time Microsoft learned of the problem was when the test was released. He praised the FCC for pledging an open testing process, citing the commission's reaching out to the company with this problem.

The prototype devices sense out open frequencies to use, but broadcasters said they don't do so well enough to prevent interference with digital-TV signals. The FCC's first round of testing appeared to bear out that fear.

But FCC commissioners have been supportive of allowing the devices, with the caveat that they not cause interference to TV viewers. Most argued that there is a technological solution, and that it is just a matter of time. Broadcasters said they are not sure that time may ever come and it is certainly not now, when they are being asked to pull off what is arguably the biggest technological change in the medium's history -- the switch from analog to digital broadcasting.

Broadcasters are generally not opposed to allowing fixed unlicensed devices to share the band, but they are strongly opposed to the mobile devices.

Broadcasters also got a boost in their fight against unlicensed devices from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times saying that the FCC should move cautiously and that the devices “could disrupt the new digital-TV signals that government and industry have spent so much time and money to promote.”

He is also concerned about interference with wireless microphones used in New York’s theater district, parts of which he represents.