TV giants lock horns with Microsoft and Google over white space wireless play
'God made those airwaves for us'
The heads of America's four largest television networks have joined forces to oppose a plan that would stream high-speed internet access over unused TV airwaves. And in doing so, they're taking aim at one of the great oddities of the modern tech industry: a partnership between Google and Microsoft.
A coalition of big-name tech companies - including Dell, HP, Intel, and Philips as well as Google and Microsoft - is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow the use of personal computing devices that transmit data over the country's television "white spaces"  - portions of the TV spectrum that aren't used for broadcasting.
Local TV stations have already launched a public attack on the plan, claiming that white space devices will interfere with their signals, and now, the nationwide television networks that piggy-back on these stations are joining the fray.
This week, Broadcasting & Cable reports , the big wigs who control ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, urging him to slap down Google, Microsoft, and the rest of the White Spaces Coalition. They even went so far as to say that white space devices will scar the American airwaves forever.
"As leaders in television broadcasting," wrote Walt Disney's Robert Iger, CBS's Leslie Moonves, News Corp.'s Peter Cherin, and NBC Universal's Jeffery Zucker, "we are writing to express our concern over placing personal and portable unlicensed devices in the digital television band. As you know, current proposals based on 'sensing' to avoid interference could cause permanent damage to over-the-air digital television reception."
Ed Thomas, a former FCC chief engineer who represents the White Spaces Coalition, calls this nothing more than "a scare campaign." "It lacks a scientific base," he told The Reg. "What they're trying to do is create a political environment where science doesn't prevail, and I think that's appalling."
Better than WiFi
Think of the white space proposal as WiFi on some serious steroids. Like WiFi, the technology would use unlicensed airwaves, so any company and any individual could buy devices off-the-shelf and grab some wireless bandwidth.
But the spectrum in question affords better propagation than WiFi, and the coalition's system would leverage mesh networking principles to cover even wider areas. In essence, internet access from one network gateway could be bounced from house to house to house.
"These devices could be used for distributing data inside the home, but they could also be used for broadband internet access, especially in rural areas," said Thomas, who represents the White Spaces Coalition through the DC law firm Harris, Wiltshire, and Grannis.
Plus, this technology would provide much higher speeds than WiFi. "If you want to pipe digital movies and high-fidelity music around your home, the odds are high that speeds would be close to 100Mbps with this technology," Thomas said, "though if you're grabbing broadband access from two or three or four miles away, sharing it with others in your area, the odds are speeds will be a bit lower."
The rub is that TV white spaces are at different frequencies in different geographical locations. In New York, for instance, channel 4 is used by a TV station and channel 6 is white space. But in Connecticut, channel 4 is a white space and channel 6 is used for TV.
Devices must be smart enough to automatically detect where the white spaces are before they start transmitting. "You have to know where the TV guys are," Thomas explained. "There are many, many constraints on what you can do, because you have to avoid interference."
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. ®