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Lawmakers, Sports Leagues Raise Concerns About White Spaces

Several U.S. lawmakers and organizations including the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and NASCAR have asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to slow down plans to allow wireless broadband devices to have access to unused television spectrum.

The Sports Technology Alliance, a trade group that formed last year and represents eight major sports organizations and broadcasters, has been opposed to a push by Microsoft, Google, Dell and other tech vendors to allow new broadband devices to use the so-called white spaces, which are empty channels in the television spectrum. On Friday, the alliance filed a petition with the FCC, joining several other groups in asking the agency to allow a longer comment period on a white-spaces proposal.

FCC testing showed that white-spaces devices can interfere with wireless microphone signals, the alliance said. One of the technologies tested for its ability to sense other signals operating in the TV spectrum didn't work, the alliance wrote.

Spectrum sensing technology "is clearly not ready for prime time," the alliance said in its filing. "The commission's own engineers and data fail to demonstrate that the technology works better than 50% of the time in a real-world environment and in many cases failed miserably. We therefore request that the commission not authorize the demonstrably unreliable technology of spectrum sensing as a basis for permitting the production of potentially millions of interference generating devices."

A second technology, called geolocation, was able to sense occupied TV channels during FCC field tests. If the FCC moves forward with the white spaces plan, it should require wireless broadband devices to use geolocation, the group said.

The FCC on Oct. 15 released a report on a series of interference tests on prototype wireless broadband devices, and commissioners are scheduled to vote Nov. 4 on a proposal to move forward with allowing white-space devices. The FCC report concluded that prototype devices were generally able to detect television signals and move to another channel, but the tests for interference with wireless microphones, which also operate without an FCC license in the TV spectrum, produced mixed results.

For more than two years, several large tech companies and consumer groups have been pushing for the FCC to approve use of the spectrum white spaces. FCC approval of the devices would spur innovation and create new jobs in the tech sector, and allow consumers to have a new option for broadband service, supporters say. The TV spectrum would allow broadband signals to travel significantly farther than the spectrum used by Wi-Fi.

But TV stations, wireless-microphone vendors, churches and other groups have raised concerns about interference even as the FCC conducted tests on prototype devices. The National Association of Broadcasters said the FCC tests gave no proof that their signals would be protected from interference.

As the FCC moves closer to a decision about the white spaces, groups on both sides have fired up their public-relations machines. Since Wednesday, groups on both sides of the debate have sent reporters covering the issue more than 15 pieces of e-mail, many announcing new filings with the FCC.

With several groups urging a delay, the White Spaces Coalition, representing a group of large tech vendors, filed comments Friday urging the commission to move forward with a vote on Nov. 4.

"After more than four years, multiple notice and comment periods, multiple rounds of lab and field testing, and over 30,000 filings by the public, broadcasters now accuse the commission of a rush to judgment on the white spaces," the coalition said. "They do so on the thinnest of pretexts -- that the commission somehow has denied them a 'meaningful opportunity' to review and comment on test data that they watched [the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology] collect, and about which they have already made no fewer than sixteen oral and written presentations on the record."

Others disagreed. Casino operator Harrah's Entertainment, in a Thursday letter, also asked the FCC to allow a longer comment period. Late Thursday, the New York City Council also voted to ask the FCC to allow additional comment on the FCC white spaces report.

Forty-nine state broadcast associations have filed comments with the FCC this week, asking for a delayed decision on white spaces.

Also Thursday, eight U.S. representatives wrote to the FCC, urging the agency to delay its decision.

"We are writing to express our serious concern about the recent action at the commission to schedule a vote on a new white spaces policy -- a policy that is purportedly derived from a 400-page technical report that was released just days ago and has not been given any formal opportunity for public comment," said the letter, signed by Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, and seven other lawmakers. "The 400-page engineering report released in mid-October reviews months of complex testing, evaluates the data, and arrives at certain critical conclusions. The commission should give the public experts a formal opportunity to analyze the data and conclusions, point out strengths and weaknesses, and ask probing questions."

On the other side, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged the commission to move forward with its white-spaces plan. Gates, talking by phone to two commissioners, asked the FCC to move ahead as quickly as possible "to allow companies to begin the process of bringing the benefits of white spaces to consumers," according to a filing by Microsoft.

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