NAB, tech industry throw down over TV white spaces

The TV white spaces (TVWS) debate is cranking back up again thanks to a proposal that recommends that the FCC set aside three 6 MHz-wide TVWS channels for unlicensed use in every market across the country.

The economic argument for broadband connectivity is undisputed and obvious: Without broadband connectivity, businesses can’t compete, and it’s more difficult for consumers to access critical educational, healthcare and governmental services. Today, approximately 34 million Americans currently lack basic broadband access, according to the FCC—and the majority of them, about 24 million, live in rural areas that simply do not have infrastructure in place to enable it. To address the gap, strategies for making inexpensive unlicensed spectrum available to ISPs have been a cornerstone of the FCC’s plan to bridge the digital divide.

The FCC previously ruled that the 600 MHz duplex gap between 652-663 MHz and Channel 37 would be not be sold to wireless carriers and would be available on an unlicensed basis, once the recent TV spectrum incentive auction was over—given that that broadcasters would be vacating that real estate. The FCC also has an unfinalized notice of proposed rulemaking that would reserve an additional 6 MHz channel in each broadcast market for unlicensed use, at 54-608 MHz. It’s the future of this last band that’s at stake.

A bipartisan coalition of 43 Congressional representatives asked the FCC earlier this summer to reserve at least three TV white space channels in the 600 MHz band to support rural broadband deployments—a plan first proposed by Microsoft.

“We believe that the television white spaces (TVWS) have strong potential to revolutionize broadband internet accessibility in rural areas,” wrote the Congressional coalition in a letter to the FCC.

As the FCC nears a vote on the issue, support from the tech industry in recent days has poured in: “We urge the FCC to address the outstanding issues as soon as possible and ask that you take the final regulatory steps that are needed to provide regulatory certainty and allow operators to fulfill that potential of TV white spaces technology,” said Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, a bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives, in a letter to the FCC.

And Voices for Innovation, a community of more than 90,000 technology professionals and consumers, also wrote (PDF) to the FCC to “strongly urge the [commission] to preserve three TV white spaces channels in every market in the nation that can be used to carry innovative broadband technology.”

TVWS can be used to provide broadband in much the same way that a conventional Wi-Fi connection signal does. But while a strong Wi-Fi signal is typically very expensive and only covers a radius of up to 300 meters, TVWS can cover anywhere between 750 meters and 9 miles. As TechNet noted in its letter to the FCC, these low-frequency signals are also capable of traversing the physical barriers and long distances that make internet access for rural communities such a challenge.

There’s just one issue: interference. Broadcasters are concerned that having broadband activities operating so close to their critical airwaves could jeopardize signal quality and delivery.

When it first opened the TVWS debate in 2008, the FCC vowed to protect TV signals and wireless mics from interference, saying all devices will be subject to approval by the FCC laboratory. There are also TVWS databases that regulate available signals to make sure they don’t overlap with other occupants of the spectrum. The National Association of Broadcasters has consistently said that these efforts don’t guarantee clear channels for TV stations.

It also, unsurprisingly, rejected the latest plan for TVWS.

“Using even the most wildly optimistic TVWS database numbers, TVWS advocates just need to connect 33,999,132 more devices to bring broadband Internet to 34 million Americans without access,” said NAB executive vice president of communications Dennis Wharton, in a statement. “Despite sitting on the sidelines for years during the TVWS experiment, Microsoft now demands that the FCC oust television broadcasters and their viewers to pave the way for free spectrum for TVWS advocates. This would jeopardize local broadcast news, programming and lifeline emergency information for millions of Americans. The FCC and members of Congress should not be fooled by Microsoft’s empty promises.”