Microsoft Talks White Space as Debate Intensifies

Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie
Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer
Source: Microsoft

Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, is the latest high-profile technology luminary to plead the industry’s case in Washington for opening the white spaces spectrum — as lobbying on both sides of the contentious issue reaches a fever pitch ahead of a key Federal Communication Commission meeting next week.

White spaces are the patches of unused wireless spectrum that lie between television channels. Major technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Philips and Motorola, along with several nonprofit advocacy groups, are calling for the FCC to make that unlicensed spectrum available for new wireless broadband networks.

Earlier this year, Google co-founder Larry Page made the trek to D.C. to make his pitch for opening up the spectrum, which he and other supporters have said would be similar to Wi-Fi networks, only more powerful.

But television broadcasters and other opponents to the plan warn that white-space devices could interfere with the adjacent TV channels. Many are calling for a comment period to give the public a chance to review the results of the most recent round of FCC testing.

White-space advocates, on the other hand, say enough is enough.

“The testing has been extensive,” Mundie told reporters on a conference call this morning. “No one has any basis for claiming that they don’t know what was tested or how it was tested.”

Earlier this month, FCC engineers released a report of more than 400 pages concluding that technical safeguards could overcome the threat of interference. Soon after, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin circulated a draft order among the other commissioners that would set in motion the process of freeing up the white spaces. The commission is scheduled to vote on the measure at its meeting next Tues., Nov. 4.

The broadcasters and other opponents have attacked what they see as discrepancies between the testing results and the report’s conclusion, and have filed an emergency request to postpone the vote.

In advance of that meeting, Mundie is in Washington for the second time in two weeks to meet with FCC commissioners and their staffers to drum up support for the issue.

This morning, he met with Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, while this afternoon, is expected to meet with Commissioner Robert McDowell’s staff. Microsoft’s co-founder and chairman, Bill Gates, is also expected to get into the action, speaking to McDowell via teleconference.

Mundie said earlier today that he has been encouraged by Microsoft’s discussions with the commissioners so far. After four years of consideration and two rounds of testing, he is hoping that the FCC will brush aside broadcasters’ requests for a 70-day comment period.

“I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we’ll see the decision be favorable next Tuesday,” Mundie said. “I’ve seen nothing to indicate that people are very warm to a delay.”

Which way will the vote go?

However, a source within the FCC told that Adelstein, with whom Mundie met before talking with reporters, was “pleased that we’re moving forward” with opening the white spaces, but that he would have liked to have had an additional comment period following the new report from the FCC’s engineers.

Still, the source did not see any reason why the vote would not proceed as scheduled at the commission’s meeting next Tuesday, though it is still not clear if a majority of the five-person commission will favor the measure.

Mundie himself admitted the uncertainty of the vote. “We’ll never know until next week,” he said.

Page 2: White spaces plan under attack from a broad coalition

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While the commission has been receiving pressure from the pro-white spaces camp, which is organized loosely under the Wireless Innovation Alliance, the broadcasters, television networks and a spate of like-minded groups have been pushing back just as hard.

The past week has seen a fusillade of comments from groups and individuals asking for the FCC to delay the vote. The National Association of Broadcasters distributed those comments to its press list, often with the salutation, “To reporters covering efforts in Washington by Microsoft, Google and others to introduce interference-causing ‘white-space’ devices …”

Last week, a group of eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Martin calling for the public-comment period the broadcasters are requesting. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., both sent similar letters.

Most recently, John Dingell, D-Mich., who also serves as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter asking for responses to a series of questions about the technical findings of the FCC engineers’ report and the steps it would take to guard against interference.

Also questioning the wisdom of the commission moving ahead with the vote are the Sports Technology Alliance — whose members include the nation’s largest professional sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League — Broadway theatre groups, megachurches and wireless microphone manufacturers have each voiced similar opposition.

For the latter groups, the concern is less about TV interference than about interference with wireless microphones, which operate in the same unlicensed spectrum bands. The most recent communiqué came from none other than country music legend Dolly Parton.

“I don’t know all the legalese concerning this issue so I’ve had some very smart people inform me about the legalities here,” Parton wrote the commissioners.

“I’ve learned about the lengthy FCC Laboratory Division’s report released just days ago demonstrating the ineffectiveness of technology meant to prevent wireless interference and the FCC’s intent to vote on rules derived from this report without allowing affected industries to review the proposal. Based on that, I join the National Association of Broadcasters’ emergency request to stay the vote scheduled for Election Day.”

Meanwhile, white-spaces proponents have secured letters of support from Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Supporters have maintained that the FCC’s testing demonstrated a “proof of concept” — that devices that met certain technical requirements could reliably avoid passing into spectrum occupied by TV broadcasts and interfering with over-the-air signals.

The tests — and proposed devices — included two technical mechanisms to avoid interference. The first, a spectrum-sensing capability, enables the devices to detect and avoid spectrum occupied by TV broadcasts. The second, a location-awareness technology, prompts the device to query the FCC’s database of local TV channels, alerting it to the unavailable spectrum in any given region.

Martin’s draft order is not public yet, but it appears that it would give a broader authorization for devices relying on location awareness than spectrum sensing, which the broadcasters claim was performed with a dubious 50-percent reliability rate in the recent testing.

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