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White-Spaces Debate Hits Broadway

The lights of the "Great White Way" could be extinguished by mobile wireless devices in the "white spaces" between digital-TV channels, at least according to the people who pay the light bills.

Broadway-theater owners squared off with the technology industry Wednesday over the issue of using those white spaces (opponents of the devices call them "interference zones") between DTV channels for unlicensed mobile devices like laptops and spectrum-sensing radios.

In the technology-industry corner was the Wireless Innovation Alliance, which includes Google, Dell, Microsoft and Motorola. It said Wednesday that it asked the Federal Communications Commission to back a "compromise" proposal for solving interference issues with wireless microphones -- which also use the TV-spectrum band -- pointing out that a combination of beacon and spectrum-sensing technology had been proposed by Shure, one of the top wireless-mic manufacturers.

“WIA, our partners and supporters of white-space technology in general have every interest in ensuring the continued operations of legitimate wireless-microphone users,” WIA spokesman Brian Peters said in announcing the letter to the FCC, “A beaconing design would alleviate any concerns the commission or the Microphone Industry Coalition (MIC) would have regarding the continued development of white-space technology and should be embraced as soon as possible. WIA is committed to working with any and all of the interested stakeholders to find reasonable solutions that can move this important process forward.”

The WIA said it was also suggesting that the FCC "for the first time" conclude that permitting Broadway theaters, most churches and others to use the white spaces for their microphones is in the public interest, saying, "Today, most wireless-microphone use in the TV band violates FCC rules."

The Broadway League -- which represents theater owners, producers and others -- shot back that the microphone-protection plan was a public-relations blitz intended to mask "fatal flaws" in proposals to use the white spaces for national voice- and data-transmission services.

"As currently envisioned under the enhanced spectrum-sensing plan," the group said in a statement, "'beacons' would transmit a signal telling nearby portable devices that wireless microphones are already occupying certain white-space spectrum and instruct these portable devices not to broadcast on these frequencies. This proposal purposefully excludes many types of wireless-microphone users, including Broadway theaters, from any protection a beacon might provide."

That lack of protection, they argued, could cost jobs or even threaten the future of the entire New York theater industry.

"Last year alone, Broadway-related spending directly contributed over $5 billion into New York’s economy and supported the equivalent of 44,000 full-time jobs," the league pointed out. "If the technology companies get FCC approval to market these devices that do nothing to prevent interference with our equipment, we could be out of business."

The FCC is currently testing prototypes of such mobile devices in an effort to decide whether and how to allow the devices, which FCC chairman Kevin Martin has said could lead to greater broadband availability and more efficient use of spectrum, both government goals.

But Martin has said innovation can't come at the expense of interference to TV pictures as broadcasters make the transition to DTV.

Google, Microsoft and the others said there is a technological solution and problems revealed in FCC testing are just steps toward ultimate success. Broadcasters and others opposed to the devices said the problems are just that, and allowing unlicensed mobile devices that could interfere with TV reception risks mucking up the DTV transition.