White spaces decision will haunt the FCC

The FCC commissioners gave Google, Microsoft and others a "big" win Tuesday when it authorized unlicensed use of TV white space in the United States. I want to go on record here to say that this decision will come back to haunt the FCC--present and future--as thousands of people find their ability to watch TV has been compromised and their ability to hear what is happening at concerts has been interrupted by interference caused by these new white space "smart" devices that will be used to provide broadband data access.

According to the FCC, any device that is to be used for unlicensed white space spectrum will have to undergo a "rigorous certification process" before it is authorized. I would like to remind anyone who may not remember that Nextel got the go-ahead from the FCC before it started deploying its faux-cellular system. This system has since caused a lot of interference to public safety and business radio systems and is causing Sprint Nextel to spend billions of dollars to "reband" the spectrum to eliminate the interference it has caused.

This interference occurred in spite of the fact that public safety radios are built to a very high standard and are designed to reject interference. TV receivers, on the other hand, are not designed to handle adjacent channel interference, which is the reason the FCC has never assigned TV channel frequencies next to each other in the same city. There are some built-in frequency gaps in the assignments, so it may appear as though there are some sequential channels in some areas, but the FCC determined a long time ago that permitting TV channels on adjacent spectrum would cause an interference problem for TV receivers and would adversely affect the TV viewing experience.

Yet the FCC, which seems to have become a political rather than technical organization, has approved the use of TV white space spectrum for unlicensed broadband services regardless of the fact that much of this white space is already being used by police, fire and business two-way radio customers on a shared basis, and that wireless microphones use TV white space on a daily basis. This has worked so far because two-way radio systems, like TV stations, are licensed. If there is an interference problem, those who are using the spectrum can be identified. In the case of this new use of TV white space for unlicensed broadband, there is no such protection. Unlicensed users are not required to register their location, and if they cause interference to their own or their neighbors' TV sets, they probably won't realize they are the culprits and will complain to the TV station, the vendor that sold them their TV, or perhaps even the FCC, which will simply respond that it has trimmed its field force and doesn't have anyone to look into the problem or trace the source of the interference.

Those selling this equipment will, of course, deny that their products are causing the problem, and those who pushed the FCC into making this decision will claim the equipment vendors are the ones at fault, not their lack of understanding of the issues of interference. I think this decision will end up creating a major problem for both the vendors of unlicensed equipment and those consumers who simply want to watch TV.

In spite of those who cautioned against moving forward with this ruling, and there were many besides the broadcasters, the FCC commissioners decided to cave into the likes of Google and Microsoft. Both are companies without any real expertise in the area of wireless broadband and they seem to believe that wireless is just like wired. The problem with this is that it isn't! Interference is a fact of life for wireless networks but it can be managed when it can be identified. When it is caused by unlicensed users, there is no way to control it--just ask those who still try to use the Citizens' band, a band the FCC lost control over and abandoned years ago.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.

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