Battle over ‘white spaces’ makes for strange bedfellows

It’s not often that Broadway theaters and heartland mega-churches find themselves on the same side of an issue. But a proceeding by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has drawn the two together in an intense lobbying battle that also includes some of America’s most powerful computer companies and its biggest broadcasters.

In filings with the FCC over the last year, theater producers and pastors of 1,000-plus member churches have weighed in about a proposed rulemaking regarding “white spaces” — unused parts of the spectrum that would be typically occupied by television frequencies.

Computer and software giants like Google and Microsoft are working on developing portable devices that would utilize white spaces to broadcast Internet signals, potentially bringing broadband access to rural areas and strengthening networks at home and in the office.
But allowing those devices onto the spectrum could have some unintended consequences like disabling the wireless microphones that mega-church pastors “rely on to communicate our spiritual message effectively and keep up with the demands of our membership,” according to a public comment filed with the FCC earlier this month on the behalf of large worship houses.

A theater trade association, meanwhile, said in its letter to the FCC that “Broadway would be quickly paralyzed” if the new devices interfered with their microphones.

“White spaces are not white,” said Catherine Wang, partner at Bingham McCutchen and counsel to the Microphone Interests Coalition.
Wang is worried that the new portable devices being proposed by the IT giants will overpower her coalition’s own wireless devices by interfering with or blocking their signals. Coalition members include producers of the Grammy Awards Show, the Grand Ole Opry and the American Federation of Musicians.

Wang believes the new portable device will crowd the wireless spectrum and create static or “drop-outs” on microphones used by newscasters, sports referees or Broadway performers.

 But IT representatives say the debate is much ado about nothing.

“We believe the technology can do all of these things without interfering with anyone else’s signal,” said Scott Blake Harris, managing partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis and counsel to the White Spaces Coalition, a collection of America’s top IT corporations that are developing products for the unused parts of the spectrum.

Harris argues that the unique traits of white spaces will allow the new devices to provide “super WiFi,” able to carry signals for long distances and to move through various obstructions.

Consequently, areas with sparse Internet access or unreliable broadband networks would see their Web access improved.

“We firmly believe taking advantage of this unused spectrum will benefit households across the country, especially in underserved areas,” said Ginny Terzano, spokeswoman for Microsoft, one of the coalition’s members.

Harris said it is in his coalition members’ interest not to interfere with broadcasters’ signals with the new devices because the member companies are developing televisions that will also use the Internet. 

Both Harris and Wang have filed extensive comments with the FCC on what has become an aggressive lobbying campaign by both sides.
The issue has attracted the attention of one of the Internet’s most famous entrepreneurs. Larry Page, co-founder of Google, made a personal phone call early last month to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Page argued that a timely resolution on the proceeding is vital to the high-tech industry, according to a filing with the FCC. In addition, he said signals for televisions and wireless microphones would be protected from the new devices.

As they’ve made their case, Google and other IT companies have also had to face off with big broadcasters. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) contends that the new devices could disrupt their members’ transition to digital television.

“Our entire business model relies on clear pictures being delivered to our customers,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s executive vice president of media relations.

Wharton believes the devices could be especially detrimental to television signals in dense, urban communities. While the NAB is a significant lobbying force in Washington, Wharton believes the loose alliance opposing Google and others may win the day.

“We have got Broadway theater, God and sports on our side,” Wharton said.

Congress has stepped into both sides of the debate.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced a bill in March to protect existing products from interference caused by the new devices. But Rush aides said the bill is not expected to move forward this session. More than 40 lawmakers now have written to the FCC, expressing concern over the portable devices, according to NAB.

The computer and software companies have congressional support as well. Two weeks after Rush introduced his bill, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) offered a competing measure that would require the FCC to issue a final order on the white spaces. Inslee — whose district shares part of Microsoft’s headquarters — is pressing for committee action, according to one of his aides.

The agency has been testing the devices, but the results have done little to clarify the debate. Both sides have used the test data released this August for their campaigns.

Two prototypes — one by Microsoft, the other by Philips, another member of Harris’s coalition — were tested. While Philips’s model scored well, Microsoft’s performed poorly.

“They were not state-of-the-art devices ready to go to market,” said Microsoft’s Terzano.

She added that Microsoft discovered the prototype that the FCC tested was broken at the time. Since then, the company has paid for independent testing of the device, which then had a 100 percent success rate under 1,000 field tests.

But Wang argued that the computer company only tested for digital television signals, not for wireless microphones’ transmissions.

“We are confident that when the FCC does its own testing, it will find that the devices effectively detect and protect wireless microphones,” Harris said.

According to an Oct. 5 announcement, the FCC is planning additional testing for the devices. Harris expects new prototypes will be submitted to the agency soon.