FCC Adopts Rules for Unlicensed TV White Space Devices

By Ken Kerschbaumer

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted a Second Report and Order (Second R&O) that establishes rules to allow new, sophisticated wireless devices to operate in broadcast television spectrum on a secondary basis at locations where that spectrum is open. That spectrum is currently home to tens of thousands of wireless microphone systems used by sports networks, leagues, churches, musical acts, and theaters and while the FCC is promising safe guards to protect their use it is a new day in wireless.

“Opening the white spaces will allow for the creation of a WiFi on steroids,” said FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin in a statement, echoing Google’s Larry Page. “It has the potential to improve wireless broadband connectivity and inspire an ever-widening array of new Internet based products and services for consumers. Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they may have only dreamed about before. I fully expect that everything from enhanced home broadband networks, to intelligent peer-to-peer devices, and even small communications networks will come into being in TV ‘white spaces.’”

The FCC says the rules represent a careful first step to permit the operation of unlicensed devices in the TV white spaces and include numerous safeguards to protect incumbent services against harmful interference. Martin says the FCC order does so without disrupting TV services, wireless microphones, or other permitted uses of this spectrum. “I have always said that opening the white spaces must be conditioned on protecting primary spectrum users from interference,” he added in his statement.

The rules will allow for both fixed and personal/portable unlicensed devices. Such devices must include a geolocation capability and provisions to access over the Internet a database of the incumbent services, such as full power and low power TV stations and cable system headends, in addition to spectrum-sensing technology. The database will tell the white space device what spectrum may be used at that location.

Wireless microphones will be protected in a variety of ways. The locations where wireless microphones are used, such as sporting venues and event and production facilities, can be registered in the database and will be protected in the same way as other services. The Commission also has required that devices include the ability to listen to the airwaves to sense wireless microphones as an additional measure of protection for these devices.

All white space devices are subject to equipment certification by the FCC Laboratory. The Laboratory will request samples of the devices for testing to ensure that they meet all the pertinent requirements.

The Commission also will permit certification of devices that do not include the geolocation and data base access capabilities, and instead rely solely on spectrum sensing to avoid causing harmful interference, subject to a much more rigorous approval process. In a process that will be open to the public, applications will be released for public comment prior to agency action. Such devices will be tested by our Laboratory to a “Proof of Performance” standard both in the lab and in a variety of real-world environments to ensure they do not cause interference to licensed services when in use. The staff report and recommendation will also be released for public comment. For now, certification of any such device will require approval by the full Commission.

Manufacturers may continue to provide additional information to the Commission to support the use of higher power devices in adjacent channels. In addition, the Commission will explore in a separate Notice of Inquiry whether higher-powered unlicensed operations might be permitted in TV white spaces in rural areas.

The Commission will closely oversee and monitor the introduction of TV white space devices. The Commission will act promptly to remove from the market any equipment found to be causing harmful interference and will require the responsible parties to take appropriate actions to remedy any interference that may occur.

“Today’s decision is consequential to our nation’s future because wireless broadband has the potential to improve our economy and quality of life in even the remotest areas,” said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a statement. “One of the best options for promoting broadband and competition across the country, particularly in rural areas, is maximizing the potential of spectrum-based service.”

Adelstein did make clear that he is concerned about protecting wireless microphones bought by consumers. “We must act to protect the many musicians, performers and others who will need to ensure their equipment continues to work,” he explained. “While I am hopeful the protections we adopt today are sufficient, we will need to closely follow the impact on users of wireless microphones, and devise solutions, considering all spectrum at our disposal, so they can continue to use them with confidence they will function as they have come to expect.”

Commissioner Michael Copps said the FCC’s decision not to authorize devices that rely exclusively on sensing reflects merit on both sides of the debate.

“We’re moving towards a compromise technology ‘geo-location’ that represents a simpler and more conservative approach to protecting existing licensed users of the television band,” he added. “We also have built in several forms of belt-and-suspender protections. First, we still will have a chance to ‘kick the tires’ of these devices at the certification stage to make sure they operate as designed. Second, because we permit these devices to operate under our Part 15 unlicensed rules, they must protect broadcast licensees and shut off if they create harmful interference. Third, because we use geo-location technology, we retain the ability to require particular makes and models of white space devices to turn off if they have a manufacturing flaw. Fourth, to the extent that we consider certifying a next-generation sensing-only device, we have established a process to make sure that all parties have an opportunity to be present during the testing process.”

Adelstein added that the results of the Office of Engineering and Technology’s study show that geo-location technology offers an accurate and dependable means of protecting spectrum incumbents from interference. “I am pleased with our decision to require both master-client based and independent based devices to utilize geo-location technology and database access for identifying vacant channels,” he says. “Because broadcasters have such a vital role in local communities, preservation of consumers’ television reception and other services is critical to acceptance of new white spaces devices.

Commissioner Deborah Tate said the order is not perfect. “It precludes licensed services and lacks needed language regarding a specific and expedited complaint process for broadcasters, cable providers, wireless microphones and individual users in the case of interference,” she says. “Nonetheless, the order ultimately may help promote the innovation and investment in advanced services that consumers have come to expect from the communications and technology sector.”

Tate added that all devices used in the future must first be tested and approved by the Commission, in effect demonstrating not only that there is “proof of concept” but also “proof in practice.

“Power limits are more restricted “ to 40 milliwatts, or a fraction of what wireless microphones are authorized to employ in these frequencies “ when operated in a channel immediately adjacent to a broadcast service, while a higher power limit applies in non-adjacent channels,” she said. “In addition, and of critical importance to incumbent providers, the item will create a database of existing operations in specific channels and entire geographic areas that will remain unavailab
le to all unlicensed operations. Incumbent providers may register their locations and unlicensed devices will be required to first verify that channels are available prior to accessing them. This requirement to use this database will ensure that broadcast operations, broadcast auxiliary services (BAS), cable head-ins, public safety operations, and venues such as sports stadiums and theatres may register their locations and receive complete protection.”

“Regarding the concerns of facilities and events managers “ including Broadway, sports stadiums, churches, my friends at the Grand Ole Opry, and many others “ the geographic database provides a critical line of defense,” added Tate. “In addition, the item will make spectrum available in two channels above Channel 20 in those markets that are particularly congested due to public safety operations in Channels 14 “ 20. Taken together, these measures should protect the vast majority of wireless microphones.”

Tate added that a more fundamental problem is that the Commission’s decision makes it difficult if not impossible to allow anything other than unlicensed use in the white spaces of the roughly 300 megahertz that comprise the TV broadcast spectrum.

“I am not convinced that all of the white spaces in Channels 2 “ 51 needed to be made available for unlicensed use,” she explained. “Indeed, many of the companies that have discussed with me their exciting new business models have focused only on the use of Channels 21 “ 51.”

As a result, added Tate it would appear that allowing unlicensed use of the white spaces only in Channels 31-51 would be sufficient to provide four channels “ that is, 24 megahertz “ in even the most congested markets and many, many more channels in suburban and rural markets.
“While four channels of white spaces creating 24 megahertz would not represent contiguous spectrum, this nonetheless would be sufficient for broadband services in these highly congested markets,” she said. “Other urban markets would have somewhat more spectrum available, while rural markets might have as much as 100 megahertz more spectrum available.”

“It will be a giant leap for American consumers to be able to use the untapped television “white spaces,” says Commissioner Robert McDowell “At the same time, we enter this new frontier with a small step in the form of a prudent and cautious order that sets up safeguards to ensure that new unlicensed devices do not cause harmful interference with licensees and other users of these frequencies.”

McDowell also urged caution given test results, adding “It is appropriate that the steps today are limited in scope, define an outline for our future approach toward device certification and allow for any and all changes that may be required by future circumstances.”

Adelstein also acknowledged the lack of a full, open process in recent weeks with respect to the FCC’s actions.

“When the Commission puts expediency ahead of an open process, it creates unnecessary resentment from parties that believe they were not given a fair hearing,” he said. “This is not the process I would have undertaken, but since our independent engineering staff justifies the decision on the basis of their best expert analysis, I approve this item.”

Added Tate, “The Commission, through our Enforcement Bureau and in consultation with the Office of Engineering and Technology, will investigate complaints of interference and take appropriate action, as we do with all cases of interference. I regret that my colleagues were unwilling to set forth in this item a more specific and swift process to deal with complaints of interference. I remain concerned that the item is too vague and does not provide necessary protections after the interference has occurred.”

Shure, the microphone manufacturer that has led the charge against allowing unlicensed consumer devices into the White Space spectrum is concerned that, despite technical evidence to the contrary, the Commission’s action opens the door to a new breed of wireless gadgetry that relies on unproven technology as a safeguard against interference to wireless microphones.

“While not unexpected, today’s FCC decision will greatly complicate the lives of wireless microphone users across the United States and negatively affect tens of millions of Americans listening to live and broadcast events,” said Mark Brunner, Shure’s Senior Director, Global Public and Industry Relations.

Shure is also concerned that the Commission did not reserve an appropriate number of channels for flawless operation of wireless microphone equipment and did not address several important issues necessary to ensure a robust geolocation-based database for protection of large-scale events, as the Company had proposed.

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