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New America Pushes Unlicensed Bills

High-tech policy think tank the New America Foundation Thursday was circulating a number of policy papers supporting bills that would open up broadcast spectrum to so-called "smart" unlicensed devices.

Two bills were introduced last Friday, one by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and another by a group of Commerce senators, that would allow so-called white spaces in spectrum allocated to broadcasting to be used for unlicensed devices.

Stevens said in introducing the bill that there is "more than 150 MHz of spectrum in Anchorage, Alaska, and Honolulu, Hawaii [committee co-chairman Daniel Inouye is from Hawaii), that could be used by unlicensed devices for wireless services," and as much as 50 mHz in large cities.

The Stevens bill would OK the manufacture of the devices for use in the broadcast band. The devices, which were touted by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, "sense" and seek out unused spectrum on which to operate.

The Association of Maximum Service Television (MSTV), the spectrum-policy watchdog for broadcasters, has long expressed concern that the devices could cause interference to digital TVs, posing a potential impediment to the rollout out of the service just as viewers are starting to buy the sets.

It even produced and circulated a video on Capitol Hill last fall demonstrating the loss of a viewers' signal from a nearby laptop.

At the time of the demonstration, Michael Marcus, of Marcus Spectrum Solutions, a consultant to New America and former FCC associate chief of technology, said the MSTV test essentially used a loophole in the FCC proposal to create interference that a personal computer would be unlikely to ever produce.

The Stevens bill would try to guard against that interference by directing the FCC to set technical requirements of the devices and establish a complaint process for broadcasters if there is the kind of interference MSTV fears.

MSTV President David Donovan said his group "looks forward to working with the committee to ensure that over the air TV is protected," a sentiment shared by the National Association of Broadcasters.

A very similar bill, introduced by Senators George Allen (R-VA.), John Kerry (D-MA), John Sununu (R-NH) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), would also open up the spectrum to unlicensed devices, with interference-protection language.

The main difference between the two is that Stevens would only use channels 5 through 51 (52-69 are being vacated by broadcasters in the switch to digital), while the Allen et. al bill goes from channel 2 through 51.

Per a proceeding started under Powell, the FCC has also proposed opening the band to the devices, but it, too, starts with channel 5 to steer clear of cable set-top boxes, which generally operate on channels 3 and 4. That begs the question with some broadcasters: If the FCC and Stevens want to steer clear of interfering with cable set-tops, which don't use antennas, why are they willing to risk the interference to DTV reception?