Two weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled "White Space – A Connected Future" that explored the kind of world we might live in if White Space devices found their way to market. What’s "white space?" On February 17, 2009 American television stations will stop broadcasting in the analog spectrum and broadcast only in digital. In layman’s terms, each station has been assigned certain "channels" for their broadcasts. The unused space between the channels is known as "white space."
Within minutes of its publication, my article incited impassioned engineers, technogeeks and concerned citizens to chastise the hell out of me. I received literally dozens of emails from extremely learned people telling me the same thing in many different ways … White Space will NEVER work!
Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that you should never say "never" when speaking about technology. Some smart scientist somewhere will always find a way to make you look foolish for doubting that an engineering problem can be solved. So, with all deference to my engineering, geeky naysayer colleagues, let’s have a look at the dark side of white space.
A few weeks ago the FCC voted 5-0 in favor of developing the conditional unlicensed use of white-space television spectrum. Tech companies were ecstatic, especially Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), who has been spending a good deal of money ($2.1 million so far in 2008) in Washington lobbying its position on tech policy and development. Google’s even more excited because it didn’t have to pay billions of dollars to access the 700MHz of spectrum that Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T) purchased for $16 billion in March. Everyone in the valley is happy.
Well, they would be if White Space actually worked. Despite the 400-page report FCC affiliated engineers issued which stated that, "At this juncture, we believe that the burden of ‘proof of concept’ has been met. We are satisfied that spectrum sensing in combination with geo-location and database access techniques can be used to authorize equipment today under appropriate technical standards." (Note the term "proof of concept.") Fact of the matter is that no one has developed a device that actually works on white space spectrum. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a problem. In actuality, it is.
You may remember earlier in the year when Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) began testing devices that ran on White Space. Their first test at CES last January was a flop. The folks at Redmond gathered a well-informed, excited group of technocrats, futurists, pundits and the like to witness the first use of white space. Unfortunately for them, things didn’t go according to plan. The device simply didn’t work and left the hundred or so people in the room scratching their heads. Maybe it was just a faulty battery or a tiny chip malfunction. Regardless, the MSFT guys were a bit red in the face when their device was deemed a brick.
Microsoft’s second test went equally as bad. And so did the third. Ouch. It was embarrassing the first time, the second and third, more like pathetic. Needless to say, after a third failure, Microsoft gave up and let Google handle the FCC, hoping team Mountain View would be able to mend the wounds Microsoft suffered in its quest to explore white space.
Despite all the lobbying and the press and subsequent approval of the unconditional use of white space, there still hasn’t been a successful test. In fact, when the FCC tested the spectrum at FedEx field during a pre-season football game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills, the devices failed to accurately sense wireless microphone transmissions.
It is important to note that the NFL is a member of The Sport Technology Alliance, along with the MLB, the NBA, the NHL, NASCAR, the PGA, the NCAA and ESPN, is against the unconditional use of white space, which they believe will interfere with the wireless microphones and headphones used by teams and coaches to communicate during events. Not only that, but the NAB, a fellow dissenter, believes that devices operating on white space would also interfere with their broadcast signals. A representative from Shure, a wireless microphone manufacturer, stated that
The FCC’s tests of prototype white space devices at FedEx field prior to Saturday’s game between the Redskins and the Bills conclusively show that spectrum sensing white space devices will cause harmful interference to wireless microphones during live events. Simply stated, the prototype devices were unable to consistently identify operating wireless microphones or distinguish occupied from unoccupied TV channels. More troubling, the devices failed to detect the presence of wireless microphones when switched on - an occurrence that takes place multiple times during any NFL game.
Given the poor performance of these sensing devices, there is no reason to believe that the other proposed protections, such as beacons, will be any more capable of providing reliable and robust interference protection to wireless microphone transmissions. These tests reveal fundamental deficiencies of sensing devices – issues that cannot be pushed off with a promise to resolve these problems at some later time during certification testing.
In a logical world, this might have been enough to convince the FCC that maybe, just maybe, devices operating on white space might not be a good idea. Of course, Google couldn’t have that. Almost immediately after the failing report was issued, Google co-founder Larry Page publicly stated, "The test was rigged deliberately. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been up against here, and I find it despicable."
The NAB is committed to fighting the use of white space by Telco’s to provide nationwide broadband access, despite the fact that the FCC unanimously approved its usage. So with the spectrum set to open up on February 17, 2009, after the transition from analog to digital television and consumer platforms expected to become available soon after, there is a lot that needs to be done to make sure that devices operating on white space do not interfere with TV signals, wireless microphones and headphones, and, rather simply, actually work.
The FCC just released the first set of rules applied to devices that run on white space. Of the notable provisions is a clause that states, "Fixed and personal/portable devices must also have a capability to sense TV broadcasting and wireless microphone signals as a further means to minimize potential interference." Unfortunately for the companies developing these devices, they’ve yet to demonstrate a device that accurately and consistently senses broadcast and wireless microphone signals. The development of these devices is absolutely crucial to the white space debate. If they can’t sense signals, they are essentially useless bricks. Fortunately for the NAB and other dissenters, the FCC executive summary for rules applying to white space devices concludes with:
The Commission will act promptly to remove any equipment found to be causing harmful interference from the market and will require the responsible parties to take appropriate actions to remedy any interference that may occur.
For broadcasters, sports franchises and Dolly Parton, this is a good thing. Why? Because no one has yet displayed technology that actually works.
I think that engineers will ultimately solve the technical problems and I am much more optimistic about white space than this article would have you believe. It may take longer and cost more money, but sooner than later, we are going to all enjoy the benefits of living in a wirelessly connected, interoperable world.