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TV giants lock horns with Microsoft and Google over white space wireless play

'God made those airwaves for us'

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Grandma and The Redskins

Earlier this year, both Microsoft and Philips submitted white space prototypes to the FCC for testing, but things didn't go as planned. At the end of July, the FCC released an 85-page report that said the Microsoft prototype was unable to detect unused TV spectrum and that it interfered with other wireless devices.

Microsoft then said the prototype was broken, and the FCC has now announced a new round of testing. But the report lit a fire under TV broadcasters.

"By continuing to press its self-serving agenda, Microsoft is playing Russian Roulette with America's access to interference-free TV reception," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association that serves more than 8,300 local radio and television stations.

In Washington DC, the NAB even launched a newspaper and TV ad campaign that urged citizens to ring up Congress with complaints about Microsoft. In one TV ad, interference hits as a confused gray-haired biddy tries to watch the Washington Redskins on her living room flat screen.

"If some high-tech companies like Microsoft get their way, your picture could freeze and become unwatchable," is the voice over. "They want unlicensed electronic devices to operate on channels used for digital TV."

Now the big networks are making similar claims to the FCC. But Ed Thomas thinks this is little more than political theater. "We've got some people who have a lot of stars on their shoulders, brass in the industry, basically echoing the same story as the local broadcasters," Thomas said. "I find it totally appalling that they're not waiting for the commission to finish its testing."

And God created wireless

The Microsoft prototype may have failed initial tests, Thomas argues, but that doesn't mean it will fail future tests. In his mind, broadcasters are simply upset that someone else is playing in what they consider their personal sandbox. "They think that God created all wireless spectrum below 700-MHz for them and any other use of that spectrum is the Devil's work."

Of course, TV broadcasters don't see it that way. "Microsoft sent a letter to the FCC claiming that they had done their own tests and proven that their device works with 100 accuracy," NAB spokesman Kristopher Jones told us. "My question is, When has a Microsoft device ever worked with 100 per cent accuracy? I use Microsoft stuff all the time, and I can't think of a single software application or device that always works like it's supposed to."

Jones pointed out that NAB-sponsored tests had shown that white space devices would interfere with their signals, but Thomas says this is beside the point. "They tested a device nobody is proposing to build," he explained. "They tested a device that emits a wide-spectrum 100-milliwatt signal, and that's not what we're doing."

The whole point, Thomas says, is to build a device that doesn't interfere with TV signals. "By definition, unlicensed devices cannot interfere with licensed devices and if they do, they have to be corrected or taken off the market. At the end of the day, there's an enormous financial incentive for my clients to get it right."

And what does he think about Google and Microsoft actually teaming up on this effort? "Many, many companies are fierce competitors in venue X and partners in venue Y," he said. "It's very typical in industry."

Nonetheless, we find it amusing. ®

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