US regulators considering broadband over TV broadcast frequencies
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will reach a decision by November as to whether to allow broadband internet access over the old analogue TV broadcast frequencies freed up by the move to digital TV – but whereas some internet companies are very keen, TV companies have reservations about the technology.
Analogue terrestrial television is quickly being replaced by digital broadcasts around the world – in the US, the switch happens in February 2009. Once the analogue broadcasts are switched off, the frequencies used will be available for other purposes. Internet-over-TV (not to be confused with TV-over-internet, which is more or less the exact opposite) is one of the leading contenders, even though currently there is still no standard process, no suitable devices, and no business model.
Still, this access technology could overcome an important hurdle if it manages to get the approval of the US regulatory authority, the FCC. In the final report of a months-long test, the authority’s technical department has determined that the process, which uses freed-up TV frequencies, it is technically possible and considers this to be adequate evidence that the technology is feasible. The FCC, which is considering granting access to unused parts of the spectrum that will be freed up when it digitizes US television broadcasts in February 2009, is planning to reach a decision based on the technical department’s report in early November.
When the test report was released late Wednesday evening, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced that he would recommend approval of the process to the commission. The US regulatory chief’s public statement met with a mixed reaction. While advocates, like the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a lobby group supported by industry leaders Google and Microsoft, broke out the bubbly, the previous guardians of the spectrum, the television networks, pointed out the problems indicated in the FCC report.
The tests dealt with the question of whether supplied prototypes were able to identify unused channels reliably without interfering with the neighbouring television channels. According to the technical report, the five devices provided by Microsoft, Motorola, Philips, and others passed the test under laboratory conditions.
However, FCC testers noted that identifying free channels in real-world conditions – things like weak or strong signals on directly-neighbouring channels – was not always error-free. While the majority of the prototypes were limited to detecting channels that were in use, the device provided by Motorola, which performed best in the field tests, used a GPS module and a broadcaster database as well.
"It was a long road to get to today," said a Wireless Innovation Alliance spokesman, commenting on the conclusions of the FCC testers. He added that four years of research and 18 months of tests (with a number of setbacks) have proven that "white space" technology is safe. Now, according to the spokesman, the FCC would be able to set the guidelines for the new access technology, which would allow broadband Internet access even in sparsely populated regions. The alliance calls the process "WLAN on steroids". But it is still not clear yet what a business model for the technology would look like. The alliance has suggested that a concept like the ones that WLAN providers offer, with free public networks or paid access may be a possibility. Monisha Ghosh, who works on Philips’ white space program, estimates that the first market ready devices could be delivered in about a year.
But broadcasters, reluctant to relinquish control over the television frequencies, remain sceptical. They are particularly rankled by the FCC's intention to open up the channels to unlicensed users. This would mean that the free blocks between digital TV broadcasters could be used for other services without any further approvals from the regulatory authority. Broadcasters point out the problems cited in the report. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) believes that "important findings" in the test report contradict the "optimistic advocacy" of the commission. According to NAB vice president Dennis Wharton, it looked as if the FCC was falsely interpreting data collected by its own experts. Broadcasters are calling for a public discussion of the paper before the FCC approves the measure.