Wider Scope

The Space Between

when TV goes digital, who gets the airwaves?

Emily Thierfelder, photos by Drew Kaiser |

By now, almost all TV owners have been told to rid themselves of their old “rabbit ear” televisions in preparation for the February 2009 switch from analog to digital broadcast television. This digital TV (DTV) transition is a step the Federal Communications Commission says will free up parts of broadcast spectrum for public safety communications, advanced wireless services, and improved picture and sound quality. However, there might be yet another method to secure more of those radio airwaves: utilization of television’s currently unused “white space” spectrum.

The 2009 DTV transition is actually the second step taken by the government to free up more of the broadcast spectrum. Congress first approved the distribution of additional broadcast channels to full-power TV stations (as opposed to “low-power,” “Class A,” and “TV translator” stations) in 1996. With those extra channels, stations could take the first steps away from analog by broadcasting in both analog and digital. Soon after, Congress declared that Feb. 17, 2009 would be the last day for stations to continue analog broadcasts. Everything after that would be broadcasted digitally.

This is where the issue of “white space” comes in. Once television is broadcasted solely in digital, airwaves that used to carry analog signals will be almost completely unused. This is because the digital TV signals will take up a much smaller amount of the spectrum, leaving a lot more space between them free to be used for things like wireless internet access – a situation that companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Google feel should be taken advantage of. After all, every one of those companies’ bottom lines would greatly benefit by the increased use of wireless internet on those extra radio waves. In fact, Google cares so much about getting the word out about this unused spectrum space that it has launched a website dedicated to spreading the word: freetheairwaves.com.

As stated on the site’s homepage, the use of this white space could “kick-start a revolution in wireless technology, including universal wireless online access and numerous new products and services that can’t even be imagined today.” Along with a string of other entities, Google hopes the FCC will consider opening up the unused spectrum for public use in conjunction with the DVT transition. As the site’s online petition asserts, doing so will “pave the way for universal wireless broadband ... creating affordable and truly universal broadband wireless coverage” throughout the United States.

However, not everyone agrees opening up unused spectrum space to the public is a smart decision. Entities like the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a trade association that advocates for local and national broadcast networks, has argued that so-called “white space devices,” or pieces of equipment capable of wireless communication in the frequencies now occupied by analog TV signals, will be unable to detect broadcast signals and cause interference to TV broadcasting.

In a report released on Aug. 29, the NAB replies to tests conducted by the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology on the performance of white space devices. After detailing various ways that the performance fails to unarguably prove that white space devices will not interfere with TV frequencies, the NAB writes that the FCC “must not allow personal/portable devices to jeopardize cable services and the millions of digital cable-ready sets that will be sold to consumers over the next few years. ... The country cannot afford to risk cable television services and the investments in new technology on personal/portable devices.”

Interestingly enough, NAB’s summary of the testing directly contrasts the Wireless Innovation Alliance’s interpretation. In an Aug. 13 press release, WIA spokesperson Jake Ward reports that during tests, white space devices “successfully identified and protected against any harmful interference of television broadcast and wireless microphones.” Furthermore, Ward states that the data “clearly demonstrates that white spaces technologies can safely and effectively operate in high-power environments without interference.”

The real outcome of the testing – and the future of white space use – could be determined by the FCC as soon as this fall. By Sept. 2, Free the Airwaves’ online petition had collected over 13,000 signatures, two weeks after first launching the site ... and organizations like NAB are functioning just as strongly. To lean more and determine your own opinion, visit www.freetheairwaves.com.