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Weller Scouts Spectrum for NAB

“Everyone’s looking for spectrum everywhere, and broadcasters are a particularly juicy target”

WASHINGTON — Robert Weller calls radio his first love. His father hosted a show on KRE(AM) in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1950s, and Bob was hooked.

One of his first paying jobs was at an AM/FM combo, the former KDFC/KIBE, also in Berkeley. He used a Q-tip to clean the cart machine heads for the classical-music stations.

Weller is former chief of technical analysis for the Federal Communications Commission. Weller was named as vice president for spectrum policy at the National Association of Broadcasters last summer. Although he’s an engineer, Weller works in the NAB’s legal and regulatory department, not far from the technology folks one floor above at the association’s headquarters. At the spring NAB Show, Weller will participate in a Broadcast Engineering Conference panel concerning RF safety.

A native of Alameda Island, Calif., Weller holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in electromagnetics from George Washington University. Weller is a Registered Professional Engineer in California and Colorado.

He has had two stints at the Federal Communications Commission; in the first, he worked as a radio inspector in the San Francisco Field Office, starting in 1984, and as director of its Denver District Office. He later rejoined the agency’s Office of Engineering and Technology in 1997 as chief of technical analysis. In between, he worked at engineering consulting firm Hammett & Edison, where he conducted broadcast systems engineering, emerging technologies, due diligence and FCC rule-makings and applications.

He spoke with Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson.

RW: What is your job at NAB?

Weller: My main responsibility is to ensure that broadcasters’ spectrum rights are fully protected. That includes protecting not only the channels that are used to deliver programming to listeners and viewers, but also protecting the myriad auxiliary services that use spectrum to gather and distribute source material like ENG and wireless mics.

RW: Which is related to the current debate over the use of RPU spectrum.

Weller: Exactly. I’m working with the Defense Department on some of that sharing as well.

RW: How does what you do affect radio?

Weller: Everyone’s looking for spectrum everywhere, and broadcasters are a particularly juicy target. You can bet that AM and FM broadcast spectrum and broadcast auxiliary spectrum are being looked at. NAB monitors the FCC and other agencies, looking for proposals that could impact our radio members.

One specific thing NAB is involved with is supporting enabling the FM tuners that are already in most cellphones. For example, in the iPhone, the FM tuner is an integrated part of the Bluetooth package. Apart from entertainment, radio broadcast is uniquely qualified to provide a lifeline to emergency information. That’s a lifeline that doesn’t rely on congestion and failure-prone infrastructure of cell sites. So getting those FM tuners activated is very important in terms of public safety.

My involvement would be to take a look at what would be the impact from the consumer experience.

RW: You’ll talk about RF safety in Las Vegas.

Weller: Philosophically, I’ll say I’m very interested in RF safety and have been for a long time. I serve on what’s called ICES, the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety. Its function is to review the scientific literature as it’s published to look for indications that could impact public safety and workplace safety with regard to electromagnetic energy. They develop standards to limit human exposure to electromagnetic energy to safe levels. They also develop standards to assist industry, including broadcasting, in ensuring a safe workplace or safe public. My particular involvement now is we’re looking at things like access restriction and appropriate signage in workplace environments.

RW: Does this have to do with the revised tower rules the commission passed last year?

Weller: That’s right. That was an FCC proceeding that started in 2003. I was hired in 2007. One of my goals during my last stint at the FCC was to get that proceeding across the finish line. I’m proud to say at least part of it got across the finish line; there’s a Further Notice as well. But it took five years to get it there.

RW: What are most important things to know about RF safety? Over the years, engineers have told me management has cut back on staff and that this plays out when an engineer has to go to the transmitter at night, often alone.

Weller: Broadcast employees, especially the engineer and technicians who work around high-power transmitting gear, can get into hazardous situations when they work on live equipment. But my experience has been they’re very aware of those hazards, including RF exposure. I would add that tower climbing and transmitter work are two things that should not normally be done alone, although I’ve done both of them myself. Sometimes, frankly, it’s difficult to avoid that.

The two most important things are to be informed and to be careful. Don’t work on live, high-power equipment; and don’t climb a tower, or direct somebody else to climb a tower, without understanding the RF environment on that tower.

RW: What did you do as chief of technical analysis for the FCC?

Weller: The Technical Analysis Branch is part of the FCC’s Office of Engineering & Technology. When people ask me what I did, my response was something like: “I was involved with all of the numbers that the FCC produces that were not preceded by a dollar sign.”

When you talk about frequencies and coverage and interference protection — all those sorts of numbers are in the FCC rules. …

In terms of specific tasks, we talked about RF safety. The Technical Analysis Branch … is a group of subject matter experts with diverse experience in engineering, computer programming, networks, physics, biology and mathematics. The group studies technical problems from a theoretical perspective, unlike the FCC laboratory, which studies sometimes the same or similar problems from an empirical perspective.

My job was to manage these theoretical experts to develop policy options, mostly related to spectrum management.

RW: Speaking of the lab, I went to the anechoic chamber when it opened at the FCC lab in Columbia, Md., when Michael Powell was chairman.

Weller: That’s where they confirm that the theory matches the product, or that the product matches the theory. The product, or the service, is just an idea in somebody’s head. So the Technical Analysis Branch has to play out, using mathematical models, how that service or that product might interact with legacy users like broadcasters. Once the product is actually built — an example might be a whitespace device — then it gets taken out to the lab, and the engineers and technicians out there do lots of different tests to make sure that the theory matches the experience.

Weller, NAB’s new vice president for spectrum policy, is a motorcycle enthusiast. He’s shown here on a ride in Alaska in 2010.RW: In addressing the AM noise floor issue, some in the radio engineering community have proposed that AMs migrate to TV analog Channels 5 and 6. Do you have a personal opinion on this?

Weller: The NAB board has discussed this in some detail, and I’m personally aware of those proposals. It’s true that at present, the low-band VHF TV channels, including 5 and 6, are among the most lightly-used of all the TV channels. But I can also say that if the incentive auction is as successful as the FCC hopes, Channels 2 through 6 may see a resurgence, with lots of low-power TV and [TV] translator operations being relocated there. If that happens, it will become difficult to move forward and reallocate those channels for audio use.

RW: Do you work on HD Radio issues?

Weller: NAB just completed a number of field tests of all-digital IBOC on AM. The technology group is still looking at the data, and there’s a presentation at the NAB Show about that. One of the things that came out of those tests is that theory doesn’t necessarily match the experience in terms of interference susceptibility.

Presently, the FCC’s allocation rules don’t deal with all-digital AM. So, if this is something that the industry thinks needs to move forward, then part of my responsibility would be to come up with the best way to approach the necessary rule changes. But we’re not there yet.

RW: You began your FCC career as a station inspector in the San Francisco area. Please share any funny stories from those days.

Weller: I spent nine years in the FCC’s field organization. I’ve had guns pointed at me. I’ve interviewed inmates in prison. FCC agents carry a badge, and there’s definitely a law enforcement aspect to some of the work.

At one point the FCC had an enforcement boat that I equipped for direction-finding. I grew up on an island [Alameda in San Francisco Bay] and learned to sail when I was very young. I volunteered for this marine enforcement project.

The boat was a planning-hull souped-up bass fishing boat that had been seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency. It went really fast, but unfortunately, it was not well-suited for the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. So we had to poke along at some pretty slow speeds. One of the first things that we used it for was to work with the Fish and Game agents to locate poachers.

Because were in this unmarked bass boat, the poachers didn’t suspect anything when we would come alongside. So we could give their locations and other information to the fish cops, who would then come in and do the actual bust.

The only requirement was that the Fish and Game Office, in addition to charging them with poaching, had to tack on “operating a radio without a license.”

RW: A marine radio?

Weller: What they were poaching, apparently, was roe — caviar. They didn’t want to use marine radios because too many people have them and there would be too many people listening in. They used illegal frequencies and that’s what brought in the federal charge of operating a radio without a license.

I did some undercover work, which was a lot of fun. …

Back in the early 1990s there were not a lot of standardized personal computers available because the FCC rules required every model had to be tested, which was a very expensive process. People would build grey-market computers and sell them. We busted one guy so many times that we finally got a warrant to seize his inventory. We invited one of the local TV stations to film the bust.

I posed as a black-market satellite TV dealer who could hook you up with free HBO. We did a sting operation where we worked with HBO to shut off the illegal de-scrambler boxes. Then the person who had bought this illegal satellite box would bring it in to the store, and then we’d threaten them with prosecution for piracy unless they turned in their box.

And back when 900 dial-a-porn was a thing, one of my jobs at the FCC was to call those numbers and record and transcribe the call to make sure that minors couldn’t access the obscene content. The FCC had an unblocked line installed in a special room. All I can say is there must have been a lot of money in 900 dial-a-porn, because it was weeks and weeks of calling these numbers and recording them and transcribing all the stuff. …

RW: What did you do at Hammett & Edison?

Weller: I spent 15 years at Hammett & Edison consulting engineers. I was able to learn under both Mr. [Robert] Hammett and Mr. [Edward] Edison, both NAB Engineering Achievement Award winners, as well as from other engineers who had designed many AM, FM and television stations. It really opened my eyes about why stations are designed the way they are, why certain FCC rules exist at all, why they’re written the way they are, and which rules can be used to a client’s advantage.

RW: Do you still work with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and enjoy riding?

Weller: I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was old enough that my mother could no longer tell me “no.” But it can be a dangerous hobby. A lot of people, including myself, start to ride with no training, thinking it’s like riding a bicycle. That’s not a good idea, especially if you’re riding on the street.

I took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, initially to get a discount on my insurance. But I felt like I learned so much from the course that I wanted the opportunity to share what I learned with others. I became a riding instructor. I did that for a number of years. However, it’s a very demanding job physically and it takes up a lot of weekends so I haven’t been coaching for a couple of years.

RW: Do you still find time to ride occasionally?

Weller: Not very often. My wife and I are “green.” We don’t own a car or a motorcycle. My son owns one and sometimes when I feel the urge I’ll hop on his bike.

Comment on this or any story. Email[email protected]. Also see related story “NAB to FCC: Reverse Plan to Close Enforcement Field Offices.”