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FCC reluctantly considers delaying white-spaces vote

The agency is examining whether it should delay its vote on opening up unlicensed wireless spectrum due to a petition filed by broadcasters last week.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering delaying its November 4 vote on using unlicensed white-space spectrum after broadcasters filed an emergency petition, according to Web site Ars Technica.

The article quotes FCC spokesman Rob Kenny as saying the agency is reviewing the broadcasters' request. But the article also made it sound like the FCC wasn't crazy about the idea of delaying the vote. Kenny notes in his comments that the white-space proceeding has been open for several years and there have already been several rounds of testing, which were open to the public for comment.

Big technology companies, such as Motorola, Microsoft, and Google, have been lobbying the FCC for more than a year to open up these channels known as white spaces. These slivers of spectrum have been used as buffers between TV stations. But if used, they could provide between 300MHz and 400MHz of unlicensed spectral capacity throughout the country that could be used by anyone.

The National Association of Broadcasters has opposed using the buffer spectrum, saying that the use of white spaces will interfere with licensed broadcast channels.

Last week, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology released a report in which it concluded that detection technology along with geo-location technology worked well enough in proof-of-concept devices to avoid interference issues. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin also announced his support in favor of opening up white spaces for unlicensed use and said the issue will be voted on at the November 4 FCC meeting.

But the NAB and the nation's three major TV broadcasters argue that the report's findings indicate there are interference issues. On Friday, they filed an emergency petition asking the FCC to launch a 70-day public comment cycle on the report.

"The widespread WSD (white-space device) sensing failures, all documented in the report, rebut the report's conclusion that there has been a 'proof of concept'," the NAB said in its filing. "There is no basis for concluding that devices that rely on spectrum sensing only, without geo-location, are feasible."

The NAB also argues that the FCC has sought comment after other technical reports were issued in the past. For example, the group noted that the agency asked for public comment about a study on 3G, or third-generation, wireless use in the 2,500MHz to 2,690MHz band in 2001. It also asked for comment after issuing studies on media ownership in 2007.

Of course, it should come as little surprise that the broadcasters are unhappy with the FCC's support for white spaces. They have been fighting the proceeding tooth and nail from the beginning. While broadcasters say they oppose the use of white spaces because of interference issues, I wonder if they are also afraid that opening up this spectrum might hurt their business models years into the future.

The companies pushing hardest for white spaces are companies like Microsoft and Google. Today these companies don't compete directly with broadcasters. But as more video is distributed via the Internet, there's a chance that they could become competitors in the future. Google already competes in a minor way with its YouTube site. The white-space spectrum, which penetrates easily through walls and provides high capacity, could be used to extend broadband services wirelessly.

Perhaps a bigger threat to broadcasters are the companies that haven't been created yet. Opening up the white-space spectrum for free use could help spur the creation of new companies that could eventually compete with them. In many ways this is exactly what Chairman Martin hopes will happen.