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Baby-kissers battle over what to do with White Spaces

Politicians divided on free airwaves and broadcast TV

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Two bills before the US government lay out plans for selling off broadcast TV channels, but one grabs the cash to pay for emergency services, while the other preserves licence-free options.

On the Republican side we have "Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS) Act", which insists that TV broadcast spectrum be auctioned off with the money going to build a first-responders network, after the TV channels get a cut. From the Democrats comes the "Wireless Innovation and Public Safety Act", which requires the FCC to ensure selloffs are voluntary, and pays for the emergency services by grabbing wavelengths elsewhere on the dial.

Television broadcasting is horribly inefficient: a massive transmitter blankets a huge area with a single frequency, while a neighbouring transmitter has to be on a different band to avoid interference – but that means the neighbouring transmitter's band lies empty on the far side of the first transmitter, which is where a low-power White Space device can lurk.

The FCC plans to offer television channels a share of the revenue if they give up their spectrum, moving into vacant slots in digital multiplexes, or giving up the broadcast model entirely (moving to cable or IPTV distribution), which means fewer broadcast TV channels, and thus less White Space between them.

Given that the channels didn't pay for the spectrum in the first place, and many of them view the internet as their ultimate home anyway, there's considerable incentive for them to take the cash.

Which is why the differences between the two bills is so important. The Wireless Innovation Act (Fact Sheet PDF), is clear that the FCC should only sanction incentive auctions "where in the public interest", and mandates that any change in broadcasting must be voluntary, while the JOBS act (Draft Proposal PDF) is more focused on raising revenue and creating opportunities for the mobile carriers.

Both bills propose using money raised from spectrum auctions to pay for a national first-responder network in the much-discussed "D-Block" spectrum (between 758 and 798 MHz). The FCC has been trying to flog D-Block since 2007, but buyers have been put off by the requirement that any network in the band give priority access to the emergency services.

The Wireless Innovation Act talks about raising the money to build the network by selling off bands at 1.7 and 2.1GHz in 2014, to be followed by two more chunks at 1.7GHz in 2014 and 2020, leaving existing TV broadcast channels to be used to broadcast television, or by unlicensed White Space devices, or a happy combination of the two.

But the JOBS act reckons the money raised by selling off the TV broadcast channels will pay for a first-responders' network, not to mention creating more jobs and reducing the deficit to the tune of $15bn.

Obviously that means selling off a lot more spectrum, and leaving many fewer white spaces for unlicensed use.

Spectrum Bridge has just completed its trials in the hope of becoming America's first White Space database, and while broadcasters are still employing a delaying action (demanding more details, and an extension to the trial). It looks as if Spectrum Bridge will get approval early next year – if not by the end of this one – at which point it becomes legal to sell, and use, White Space devices in the USA.

The potential of White Space is huge, assuming the worries about wireless microphones and TV disruption turn out to be groundless. In that case, White Space radio could immediately have an impact as big as Wi-Fi has had, and as a model for cognitive use of spectrum it could fundamentally change how radio waves are governed to make buying licences as outmoded as taxing windows. But with no licences to sell, there's no revenue for the government, and right now governmental income could be more important than changing the world. ®

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