FCC White Space Q&A Session: What is Next?

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Earlier this week the FCC said that unlicensed consumer devices will be allowed in white space TV spectrum in a controversial vote on Election Day. So what does this mean to the industry? And when will it impact day-to-day operations? SVG offers up some questions and answers based on the sketchy details that are currently available.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says the White Spaces will create “Wi-Fi on steroids.” And then Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says he hopes that it’s “not just Wi-Fi on steroids but Wi-Fi on amphetamines as well.” Why is the FCC singing the praises of illegal drug use?

Ironically, the drug metaphor is fitting. In theory these devices, just like drugs, sound like a good idea. After all, who can argue with better, faster, stronger? But the reality of drug abuse, unfortunately, seldom matches the promise. Expect the same from these devices: real-world deployments that do more damage then good.

So what happens next?

Right now the industry is waiting for the FCC to release the White Spaces Order, something it is expected to do as early as next week. Once the Order is released the potential impact on the use of wireless microphones and over-the-air and cable TV reception should become more clear.

What should the industry expect?

The FCC will definitely open up the spectrum to unlicensed consumer devices, both portable and fixed, devices that will interfere with wireless microphones and other systems as well as over-the-air and cable TV reception.

The devil, as always, is in the details. For example, the FCC is expected to announce plans for a geolocation database that will allow sports stadiums and arenas, concert halls, TV studios, and other facilities to be listed and, in theory, become off limits to unlicensed consumer devices. A consumer’s device would be in contact with the database and would not operate if a facility were listed in the database.

That sounds great.

It does but many questions are unanswered. Who will maintain the database? Will the FCC want to maintain it? How often will it be updated? How often will unlicensed consumer devices connect to the database? How accurate will the database be? And will there be any protection for breaking news events or spontaneous events?

Okay…so now it doesn’t sound so great. But it’s still promising, right? For example, a sports league could simply enter all of its venues and, voila, users of wireless microphones and other systems are protected, correct?

First, assuming it works is a big assumption. But even more troubling is that not all unlicensed consumer devices will be required to use geolocation and the database.


The FCC envisions two types of White Space devices: those that tap into the database and those that rely on spectrum sensing.

You mean the spectrum sensing technology that performed fairly poorly in the FCC’s own tests?


That doesn’t sound like a very good idea.

No, it doesn’t. But the FCC says that any device that relies on spectrum sensing will have to first pass test procedures at the FCC. In the coming weeks and months the FCC will lay out how those testing procedures will work. At this point it is expected to be an open process with test reports available for public comments.

So if spectrum sensing doesn’t work they will never hit the market?

That is the theory.

Has the FCC ever been involved in testing of consumer-grade devices?

No. And this unprecedented step is the clearest sign that the FCC is not comfortable with the performance of spectrum sensing technologies in its own tests this past year.

How will those testing procedures work?

That is still to be determined. But it will almost certainly not be a lengthy process. Devices would be submitted, the FCC would allow interested parties to observe the testing, and then there would be a report and public notice issued if a device passed the test and was certified.

But again, in theory, a device would not be put into the market unless it passed the FCC’s test.

Yes. However it is anyone’s guess how rigorous those tests will be and what the FCC decides is acceptable performance. Does the device need to get the equivalent of an A+ before being ready for consumers who will a D- suffice?

So that leads to the big question: when will unlicensed consumer devices begin to hit the market and, potentially, interfere with wireless microphones and TV reception?

As early as next February but that is highly unlikely as it does not appear that there are devices in the manufacturing pipelines. The FCC also needs to develop its testing procedures. The best guess is that there will not be any major impact on wireless microphone users until the end of 2009, at the earliest.

It’s important to note, however, that any equipment that operates in the 700 MHz band will need to move into the TV band much earlier.

Speaking of 700 MHz band, aren’t there a bunch of companies like Verizon and AT&T that have paid billions of dollars for spectrum to develop consumer-level wireless services? What is their take on this whole process?

Needless to say they aren’t happy. In fact, if there is anyone that might appeal the FCC White Spaces Order it could be those companies as they spent billions of dollars earlier this year on spectrum auctions. And why did they spend it? To build wireless services that will be very similar to those that will be developed in the white space spectrum.

Wait. So let me get this straight. The FCC auctions off 700 MHz spectrum. Google enters the bidding and drives up the bids of companies like Verizon and AT&T. Then Google loses the bidding and, four months later, is given the spectrum by the FCC? That doesn’t sound very fair.

Who says life is fair? Kevin Martin won’t be working at the FCC forever. So why not help out his next employer at the expense of taxpayers via a billion dollar giveaway?

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