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Test Report Warns of Northpoint Interference

Spectrum-sharing between direct-broadcast satellite providers and proposed terrestrial services on the same frequency band (12.2 gigahertz to 12.7 gigahertz) would be feasible only if steps are taken to mitigate interference, the Federal Communications Commission said in a report last week.

The FCC, which had conducted independent tests through MITRE Corp., has not yet determined whether to authorize a terrestrial spectrum-sharing service. Comments on the test report are due by May 15, with replies to those comments due May 23.

Northpoint Technology Ltd. and its Broadwave USA subsidiary have long coveted the spectrum for terrestrial use. The company is lobbying the government for the right to use the spectrum for free, rather than face a bidding war at auction.

The company said it wants to create a new digital multichannel video and high-speed data service using the wireless spectrum through affiliate franchise agreements in 210 markets.

The Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association — which represents DBS companies DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. — has fought spectrum-sharing on the grounds that interference could cause service outages and disrupt the relationship subscribers have with their DBS providers.

The MITRE report found DBS antenna relocation would be effective in alleviating interference in some cases. Other possible options are shielding the antennas or using larger ones.

A DirecTV Inc. spokesman called suggestions that existing DBS subscribers be asked to move their antennas "absurd."

Aside from the technical questions, there are a number of customer-service issues related to plans that attempt to mitigate interference from a new terrestrial service. One of the most fundamental questions: Whose responsibility would it be to monitor interference to DBS customers and to pay for any necessary hardware adjustments?

Relocating a DBS antenna would require not only a truck roll, but in many cases it would entail additional inside wiring in the subscriber's home.

"If these [terrestrial-service providers] are going to be competitors of ours, we certainly don't want them to go to our customers for the fixes," SBCA president Chuck Hewitt said. "We would be adamantly opposed to any consumer having to take mitigating actions."

Northpoint president Sophia Collier said the incidence of DBS interference under her company's spectrum-sharing service would be very rare, perhaps in homes located directly under a terrestrial transmission tower.

Pegasus Communications Corp. senior vice president of business development John Hane said the company recommends that any necessary DBS hardware adjustments be conducted by the DBS service provider, but funded by the new terrestrial company.

"Clearly, no multichannel video provider is going to turn over its subscriber list to anybody, ever," Hane said.

Pegasus has proposed its own spectrum-sharing technology and is willing to bid for the spectrum at auction.

"It would be our job to perform any upgrades that are needed," Collier claimed. "We don't want to cause [DBS companies] any problems. We wish them no ill and will cause them no ill."

Yet, Collier openly admitted that Northpoint's goal is to lure at least some customers away from DBS with a competing terrestrial service. She said Northpoint's affiliates would go door to door to pitch the new service, which could use existing DBS antennas to pull in the signals if they were redirected to the north.

Asked whether DBS companies should be protective of their dishes and their relationships with their customers, Collier replied, "It's not their dish — it's the customer's. And the customer does not belong to the DBS company."

Today, DBS systems can experience temporary interference through rain fade, sun spots or other atmospheric conditions.

"The most insidious thing about the Northpoint system is there is no way for anyone to know" for certain where the interference is coming from in day-to-day applications, DirecTV vice president of communications systems engineering Jim Butterworth said.

DirecTV is concerned viewers will notice the longer picture outages, but in a subtle way. "It will create a growing annoyance" that can damage the customer's opinion of the service provider, Butterworth said.

In a statement last week, U.S. Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) urged the FCC to pay close attention to the MITRE study.

"I am all for choice in telecommunications services," Oxley said in the statement. "But interfering with a competitor's signal, the lifeblood of the communications business, isn't fair play."