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This Week in the White Spaces

Every once in a while I look in on the white spaces, to see how things are going. You’ll recall that the white spaces are unused, non-contiguous (“swiss cheese” ) frequencies between broadcast stations around the county. Commr. McDowell of the FCC has said that initial rules for the white spaces will be released sometime this fall.

If the white spaces are made available on an unlicensed basis for use by opportunistic, “smart,” low-power mobile devices, entrepreneurial engineers will think of ways to use this wealth of spectrum (300 MHz wide, if fractured) to provide mobile connections to whatever fiber installations are nearest. At the very least, they will experiment—and we could use some experimentation.

But the broadcasters are up in arms over this disruption. They can’t imagine that mobile personal wireless devices won’t interfere with their broadcasts, and they’re positive that unlicensed use of this spectrum shouldn’t be allowed.

This week in the white spaces:

1. Philips Electronics says that its device is super-sensitive to wireless microphones. So all the entertainers and sports announcers (including Wolf Pack Sports and a company handling multimedia rights for college sports teams, filers this week) and clerics can relax—use of the Philips prototype won’t interfere with their lives. Philips also says that it’s time for the FCC to issue its rules allowing unlicensed, portable uses of the white spaces so that devices can be designed and ready for the market in February 2009 - the date of the digital transition.

2. The wireless microphone people don’t agree, and urge the Commission to stop even considering portable unlicensed uses of the white spaces.

3. More seriously, GE Healthcare claims that “controlling the presence of personal/portable devices within the premises of healthcare facilities is an intractable challenge” that will pose risks to medical telemetry (basically measuring information about humans), and argues strongly that the New America Foundation doesn’t understand the healthcare environment.

4. The White Space Coalition (Dell, EarthLink, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, and Philips Electronics North America Corp.) checked in with the FCC’s Office of Engineering & Technology to remind that office (probably not for the first time) that requiring too much sensitivity and too low power levels of these opportunistic portable devices was probably a mistake. Decoding: if we require these devices to be so low-power, we won’t be able to do any real experimentation; you’re letting the incumbent broadcasters run the show, when we really should be shifting away from them.

5. The Association for Maximum Service Television and the National Association of Broadcasters (we can refer to these groups, collectively, as the broadcasters) piped up, saying again that personal and portable devices should be prohibited from operating in what they call the “television spectrum”. Decoding: it’s still our spectrum, even though we’re not using it, and if you outlaw portable devices these opportunistic uses won’t take off—people don’t really want fixed devices, they want mobility, and they won’t buy fixed devices in enough numbers to make manufacturing them worth it. The broadcasters are also contesting the sensitivity standards, saying that these devices should be much more sensitive in order to avoid interference with television signals.

If we take this week’s filings as a poetic symbol in small of the entire proceeding, I’d say that we’re headed for delay, or at the most a partial set of October 2007 rules that don’t deal with the unlicensed question - leaving it open for another day. That’s too bad, because we’ll see explosive innovation if these white spaces are unlicensed sooner rather than later.

Let’s hope that Chairman Martin’s inclination to allow unlicensed uses remains strong.

By Susan Crawford, Professor, Cardozo Law School in New York City

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