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FCC Proposals Create White-Space Divide

Auction rules pit Google against critical hospital patients

This article originally appeared in TV Technology.

White-space devices are running up against resistance in the fight for access to TV spectrum, or what’s left of it after the spectrum incentive auction. Wireless mic makers, for example, do not want them for neighbors.

“Two [6 MHz] channels sans white-space devices is a need, not a want,” Sennheiser Director of Spectrum Affairs Joe Ciaudelli told the Federal Communications Commission in a May 22 filing.

“The FCC is proposing that 4 MHz in the duplex gap be used for licensed microphone operators,” he told TV Technology. “From our view, this small sliver in the duplex gap is not enough for professional mic applications and is subpar spectrum since it is a buffer for out-of-band emissions from adjacent services — uplink and downlink blocks of mobile broadband. In the current proposal, any other UHF would be shared with unlicensed devices.”

Sennheiser objects to having wireless mics tossed in with white-space devices because there is no guarantee of non-interference. White-space devices must find open frequencies by pinging databases, which have “fatal flaws” according to the National Association of Broadcasters. (See “NAB Petitions FCC to Shut Down White Space Database.”)

The commission designated two TV channels for wireless mics in its 2010 white-space device order, which opened up unoccupied TV channels — aka white spaces — to unlicensed devices Two years later, the commission issued proposed auction rules that said “with less broadcast spectrum available after the repacking, two channels may no longer be dedicated to wireless microphone use.”

Well-known microphone maker Sennheiser has been fighting for two channels ever since. The company noted in its May 22 filing that the commission is focused on using the spectrum for broadband-based content distribution.

“Spectrum is also essential for content creation,” Sennheiser said, saying news and entertainment produced in the United States generates around $1 trillion, or 6.5 percent of the gross domestic product, and has the highest export-to-import ratio at 3:1 of “any American made product or service.”

Medical facilities are also leery of having white-space devices next door spectrally. Several filed with concerns about having white-space devices in Ch. 37, dedicated since 1963 to radio astronomy, and for medical telemetry on a co-primary basis since 2000. They are up against Google, the muscle behind white-space devices. Google said its tests show white-space devices can safely operate within 200 meters of a hospital’s perimeter without interference.

More than 20 hospitals disputed Google’s assertion and told the commission that sharing Ch. 37 with white-space devices would put critical-care patients at risk, and that Google’s proposal to have them submit a terrain analysis of their campuses would be an “enormous burden.”

Much of the ado about white-space devices is that their potential impact is not known. As the NAB pointed out in its May 1, 2015 filing with the commission, only 600 such devices are operating nationwide five years after FCC authorization. The NAB filing outlines its objection to white-space devices being exempt from the FCC’s deadline for vacating frequencies won at auction. Broadcasters will get booted off those frequencies 39 months after the auction closes, even if the winning bidder hasn’t built out a network. White-space devices would be allowed to continue operating on those same frequencies. (See “NAB to FCC: TV Licensees Should Trump White Space Devices.”)

The commission is aiming to finalize its incentive auction rules by the third quarter of this year. In addition to where to situate white-space devices and wireless mics, the FCC must determine who can bid, and for how much spectrum. The definition of operational “commencement” also must be decided, as well as two lawsuits now pending in federal court that may send the commission back to the drawing board. Decisions in those lawsuits, filed last year by the NAB and Sinclair Broadcast Group, are expected some time in June.