Tales of the Sausage Factory

Broadcasters Try To Embed Denial of Service Trojan Horse In White Spaces Rules

The official agenda for the FCC’s September Open Meeting on Thursday lists the broadcast white spaces as one of the items. This Order will resolve the details left hanging from the 2008 Order (although it now appears that it will not select the database operator), finally allowing development of this technology and forming the foundation for the next generation of unlicensed wireless technology.

Or maybe not. Even more than usual, this Order relies on getting all the details right. The limitations and interference mitigation mechanisms have left very little in the way of usable spectrum in the largest urban markets most attractive to manufacturers. Lose what’s left and you lose national markets necessary to interest developers and achieve economies of scale. Do anything further to drive up cost of manufacture or add a new layer of uncertainty and would-be developers – who have already been at this for [8 years] and poured millions of dollars into prototypes and pilot projects -– will likely pull the plug and walk away. Anyone who remembers such promising technologies as ultrawideband should recognize the death by a thousand cuts approach favored by incumbents.

[We’re having some technical issues here at Wetmachine, so I can’t link back to my previous posts on White Spaces. Sorry about that. Hopefully it will get resolved soon.]

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Big Low Power FM Win!

Back in 2007, the FCC issued an Order to try to address some of the problems impacting the low-power FM (LPFM) service. You can find out more about how amazing LPFM is, and why Congress needs to pass legislation to remove the artificial restrictions on how many LPFM stations we can have, here on the Prometheus Radio website.

Briefly, LPFMs are very small, very local non-commercial stations that operate at 100-watts or less. The FCC authorized the service in 2000, relaxing the “third adjacent channel” (A radio station must be 3 jumps away from the next radio station) rule to permit several thousand LPFM’s to operate without interfering with full power station. The NAB persuaded Congress to reverse this determination with the ironically named Radio Broadcaster Preservation Act of 2000. That act prohibited the FCC from relaxing or waiving the 3rd adjacent channel spacing requirement.

A few years ago, it became clear that the several hundred LPFMs permitted under the act were in danger of being crowded out by full power stations. Because of what appeared to be an unrelated decision to streamline the process by which full power FM stations can change their market designation. As a result, an LPFM could suddenly find itself impermissibly close to a full power station and need to shut down. Or it might start experiencing interference and get drowned out. The Commission therefore issued an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which provided some relief by making it easier for LPFMs to relocate on the 2nd adjacent channel, thus avoiding Congress’ mandate that the FCC not reduce or waive the separation distance required on the 3rd adjacent channel. This is not nearly as silly as it sounds, as the process involves a fact-based determination on whether there is actually any interference to any full power as a result of the move. Given how interference works, it is very possible to fit a LPFM into space on the 2nd adjacent without causing interference. Spacing is based on averages to make processing applications easier. Actual engineering can determine how to place a low-power tower to avoid interference. Mind, this would be easier to do if Congress hadn’t absolutely prohibited any waiver of 3rd adjacent spacing. But they did. Happily, however, Congress did not prohibit any waiver of 2nd channel adjacent.

The NAB promptly appealed, arguing that the FCC had no authority to alter first,second or third adjacent as a result of the 2000 Act. This, in turn, stalled the conclusion of the Rulemaking, since why finish a rulemaking if you don’t even know whether or not you have authority?

Today, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s decision. It rejected the NAB’s argument based on the plain language of the statute and found that the FCC had rationally justified its decision.

This is extremely good news for LPFM, and for those communities lucky enough to have them. As acting Chairman Copps noted in a statement issued today after the ruling, the FCC is now free to move quickly to finish the pending rulemaking. And, of course, Congress should move just as quickly to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, so that hundreds of new communities can enjoy the diverse voices of low-power FM.

My former colleagues at MAP — especially Parul Desai who did the lion’s share of work on this issue — deserve a huge shout out for this win. I should also mention that it was not a Democratic FCC, but Kevin Martin who brought the 2007 Order to a vote — and then voted with the Democrats against both his fellow Republicans to get the needed 3 votes to clear the Commission.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Broadcasters and Broadway Challenge White Spaces Order, Standing Hijinks To Ensue.

Unsurprisingly, the NAB and MSTV have filed a Petition for Review with the D.C. Circuit to try to get last November’s Order permitting unlicensed use of the white spaces overruled. As is the norm, the Petition merely recites the basics of jurisdiction and the general allegation that the Order is “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

Of perhaps greater interest, Broadcasting and Cable reports that a coalition of Broadway groups is filing in the Second Circuit.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

NAB/MSTV Embrace Radio Pirates, Make Up Engineering Data, And Do Whatever Else It Takes To Kill White Space Devices.

I gotta admire the broadcasters (as represented by their trade orgs, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV)). Even with the facts completely against them, they never give up trying. Sadly, they all too often succeed through a combination of heavy duty lobbying power (what politician doesn’t suck up to his or her local broadcaster?) and the fact that most decision makers don’t know squat about engineering and regard the whole thing as black magic. Heck, it worked to hamstring low-power FM (LPFM) radio, despite a subsequent independent government report showing the broadcaster interference claims were unsubstantiated bologna.

But embracing radio pirates by proposing to expand the availability of wireless microphones in the broadcast white spaces for their political allies and tacitly agreeing to amnesty for illegal wireless microphone users? Even I never thought they would go that far.

So let me get this straight, NAB, a million unauthorized mobile wireless microphone users operating “dumb” transmitters at higher power don’t cause interference. But smart devices, identical to those relied upon by the U.S. military to share frequencies with unlicensed devices, operating at much lower power and required to use a geolocational database, do cause interference? Wow, that makes so much sense. I can see why NAB and MSTV did not include any actual engineering analysis with their comments.

Personally, I think that if spectrum sensing and “smart radio” is good enough to protect the lives of American soldiers, we can trust it to protect viewers of American Idol. But I do not expect the broadcasters to let a piddly little thing like reality stop them — especially when using false interference claims and blatantly bogus evidence made it possible to clip the wings of the fledging low-power FM (LPFM) radio service back in 2000 (more details on the Prometheus Radio website LPFM fact sheet).

Still, I never thought I would actually lie to see the day the NAB would embrace unauthorized users, utterly reverse everything it ever said about the need to restrict access to the broadcast bands, and walk away from the more than 1 million unauthorized users in the band. Mind, you’d think that after a five year proceeding marked by such shenanigans as giving themselves free air time to push bogus interference concerns onto the public, adorable made up videos that purport to be real like Your Neighbor’s Static (aka “white spaces Reefer Madness), and the ”experiment we refuse to explain so you can’t check the results,“ the NAB would have already shot its credibility beyond all hope of recovery. But since no one not obsessed with this proceeding pays much attention to it, the NAB and friends gets to rerun the same bogus claims over and over and over again.

On the plus side, I hope my friends at Prometheus Radio are taking notes for when they make another run at Congress next year (or even this year in a lame duck session) to get the Local Community Broadcasters Act passed and get the shackles based on the broadcasters’ bogus ”interference concerns” lifted. After all, if the NAB doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about interference from unauthorized users anymore and is willing to embrace unauthorized operators, Congress should take them at their word.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Paging Hospital Techies: You Have Bigger Worries Than White Spaces

CNET has this story about how “Hospital Techies” (notably medical monitor manufacturer GE) are worried that white spaces devices will mess up their medical systems.

Bluntly, “hospital techies” have bigger problems. As the CNET article observes, but lightly passes over, some unknown number of hospitals are using legacy medical monitoring equipment that will stop working after the digital transition. So while the odds of white spaces devices (WSDs) interfering with actual medical equipment on the approved set aside, Channel 37, approaches zero, and WSD interference with legacy equipment is equally unlikely, we may face a total meltdown in poor hospitals of medical monitoring equipment.

Rather than waste time on white spaces, I would say manufacturers like GE Healthcare need to start working with the FCC (and Congress) to engage in a massive education and outreach effort equal to what the FCC has done with the NAB and retailers to educate the public. That means stop selling any legacy equipment, require manufacturers to notify customers that have legacy equipment that it may stop working, and find out how many hospitals are likely to lose medical monitoring equipment after the DTV transition happens. A little funding from Congress to help poor hospitals that can’t afford to upgrade wouldn’t hurt either.

But worrying about white spaces is like worrying about whether a candle will blow over when a brush fire is bearing down you. Unless folks wake up to the danger, we may get seriously burned.

More analysis below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

American Radio Relay League v. FCC, Why A Good Case Will Bring Confusion And Bad Results

I should be overjoyed with the D.C. Circuit’s latest case: American Radio Relay League v. FCC. First, it affirms the right of the Commission to balance between unlicensed Part 15 users and licensed users, even where operation of Part 15 certified devices/services will cause occasional interference to traditional Sec. 301 licensees. Second, it requires the FCC to publish staff reports on which it relies in their entirety, rather than merely including in the record the parts with which it agrees. Third, it requires the FCC to address proposals by commenters with something more substantive than “well, we’ve always done it this way, so we see no need to change.”

All good news, yes? As a legal matter, absolutely. But as a practical matter, I expect it to slow down movement on the FCC’s white spaces proceeding. Why? Because it was a reversal and a reversal almost always causes the good folks in the Office of Engineering and Technology to go into paralysis for a few months while they try to figure out what the new legal standard is now. That the court actually affirmed the critical part on respecting the FCC’s balance between Part 15 and traditionally licensed services is likely to get lost in the noise — especially as we can expect NAB and other white spaces opponents to dwell on the reversal aspect and ignore what the court actually said. And, in the short term, OET now has to figure out how to issue a report on the WSD testing that conforms to the D.C. Circuit’s standard of disclosure. While I, lawyer and advocate that I am, consider this simply an exercise in “tell the truth and shame the devil,” we can expect that opponents will press their own reading of the case and that OET (and FCC’s Office of General Counsel) will now have the difficult and potentially time consuming task of deciding on the proper interpretation.

So a good case in fact, but more delays while the agency digests its implications.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces and the CTIA Game Changer

The idea of auctioning the broadcast white spaces, rather than opening them for unlicensed use, is not new. It started out as an NAB “poison pill” back in 2005, when we looked like we might be making progress on getting a pro-white spaces amendment in the DTV transition bill that ultimately became the Digital Tranisition Act of 2005. When the FCC reinvigorated the proceeding in 2006, the NAB managed to get the FCC to put the question of licensed v. unlicensed in the Further Notice. But the NAB doesn’t want any neighbors, either licensed or unlicensed, and has focused its efforts until now on trying to kill the whole idea rather than on trying to promote licensing and auctions rather than unlicensed.

But the idea of licensing the white spaces for cellular or backhaul has gained new life recently, particularly after the 700 MHz auction. Both Verizon’s Steven Zipperstein and analyst Coleman Bazelon recommended this in their testimony at the House Telecom Subcommitte hearing on the 700 MHz auction. That comes on top of a serious filing by CTIA on the benefits of auctioning some of the white space and leaving a smidge so that unlicensed technologies can continue to develop.

We’ve now gone from NAB poison pill to serious issue. The proposal has not yet gained traction, but it does not do to underestimate CTIA and its members because, particularly after the 700 MHz auction, a number of its members really need that spectrum. This has the potential to change the game radically, including shifting alliances as the threat becomes more credible.

Analysis below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Fatal Exception Has Occured In Your White Spaces Sensing Device

It would be funny were it not so easy for NAB to exploit.

The Microsoft prototype shut itself down last week and would not restart. Users familiar with MS products that are scheduled for release, never mind pre-beta versions, will find this so unremarkable as to wonder at the sensation. It goes up there with “Apple denies latest i-rumor.”

Unsurprisingly however, the folks opposed to the use of white spaces (primarily the broadcasters and the wireless microphone folks, with a dash of the cable folks thrown in for good measure), will spin this as the entire technology for sensing if a channel is occupied as “failing.” This ignores the other prototypes of course (Phillips and Google), and ignores the fact that the failure had nothing to do with the sensing (the thing being tested). Finally, of course, it ignores the fact that this is a proof of concept prototype.

The fact is, that the FCC testing shows that “sensing” as a technology works at levels that easily detect operating television channels and even wireless microphones. In fact, it is too bloody sensitive. In a foolish effort to appease the unappeasable, the companies submitting prototypes keep pushing the level of sensitivity to the point where the biggest problem in recent rounds appears to be “false positives.” i.e., it is treating adjacent channels as “occupied.”

As a proof of concept, that should be a success. The testing demonstrates that you can detect signals well below the threshold needed to protect existing licensees. Logically, the next step would be to determine the appropriate level of sensitivity to accurately protect services, set rules, and move on to actual device certification based on a description of a real device.

But that is not how it works in NAB-spin land. Instead, NAB keeps moving the bar and inventing all sorts of new tests for the devices to “fail.” For example, the initial Public Notice called for prototypes for “laboratory testing.” MS and Phillips submitted prototypes that performed 100% in the lab. But then, the MS people did something very foolish, but very typical — they decided their laboratory device was good enough for field testing. No surprise, it did not work as well in the field as in the lab. As this was a laboratory prototype, the failure to perform flawlessly in the field should have been a shrug — it would have been astounding beyond belief if a prototype designed for the lab had worked perfectly the first time in the field. But the fact that the prototype did not work in the field was widely declared a “failure” by NAB, which unsurprisingly gave itself lots of free advertising time to spin the results this way.

So the FCC went to round two, and again the NAB and white spaces opponents have managed to move the bar so they can again declare a “failure.” Back in 2004, when the FCC first proposed opening the white spaces to unlicensed use, it concluded that operation of white spaces devices would not interfere with licensed wireless microphone users. The FCC has never reversed that determination. Unsurprisingly, businesses developing prototypes according to the FCC’s proposed rules have not taken particular care to address wireless microphones. Because the FCC explicitly said “don’t worry about them.”

But suddenly, if the devices can’t accurately sense and detect wireless microphones, they will be “failures.” It doesn’t matter that the devices have proven they can protect wireless microphones. It doesn’t matter that Google has proposed additional ways of protecting wireless microphones besides sensing. As long as NAB can frame what defines “failure” (rest assured, there will never be any successes of NAB gets to call the tune), and can keep changing that definition at will, the political environment will ensure that the actual engineering is irrelevant.

Which is why the companies need to stop trying to placate the NAB by agreeing to an endless series of tests with ever-shifting criteria. And OET needs to write up a report that does what the initial notices promised to do, use the data collected from prototypes to determine if the concept works and, if so, to set appropriate technical standards. The prototypes have proven they can detect signals with a sensitivity better than an actual digital television set or wireless microphone receiver, so the “proof of concept” aspect stands proven. Rather than buy NAB spin, the next step should be to determine what level of sensitivity to set as the standard.

Hopefully, the Office of Engineering and Technology, which is conducting the tests, will not suffer the fate of the Microsoft prototype and shut down under pressure.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Verizon, AT&T & the $16 Billion Termites.

Imagine you just spent a fortune on some excellent beachfront property, only to discover some termites in the basement. Now imagine that the only way to get rid of the termites involves some toxic chemicals that may arouse the ire of the environmentally conscious locals. What do you do? Learn to live with the termites, or spray and tell your green neighbors to deal?

Oddly, Verizon and AT&T now find themselves in a similar mess — if we substitute “wireless microphones” for “termites.” Verizon and AT&T (As well as a bunch of other folks) just spent a boatload of cash on licenses in the reclaimed analog television spectrum. The FCC has rules in place to migrate the broadcasters — both full power and low power. But — as far as I can tell — no one has plans to migrate the wireless microphone folks, who operate on vacant channels in the band. While in theory wireless microphones are a secondary licensed service and notifying the licensees that channels 52-69 are off limits after the digital conversion, the situation is a little more complicated. As comments filed in white spaces proceeding confirm, wireless microphones are bloody everywhere — with huge numbers of users buying and operating them without licenses.

The NAB and the FCC have turned a blind eye to proliferation of unlicensed wireless microphone use (despite the NAB’s usually firm stand against unauthorized use of “their” spectrum), both because the wireless microphones don’t actually cause any interference with television and because the “unauthorized wireless microphone user community” (which sounds so much better than “pirates”) includes megachurches, Broadway groups, and other warm cuddly folks able to gather political support. Indeed, so great is the political protectzia for the unauthorized wireless microphone user community that the FCC is, apparently, requiring that unlicensed devices in the white spaces have the ability to sense and protect these illegal wireless microphone users. (Hence Google’s recent extension of an olive branch which NAB promptly grabbed and started thwaking Google over the head. D’oh!)

AT&T, Verizon, and the rest of the 700 MHZ auction winners therefore face a bit of a dilemma. They just dropped a bundle on the 700 MHZ, and damned if they want to set precedent by allowing a bunch of illegal squatters to use “their” spectrum. Heck, if they’d thought of it earlier, they’d probably have initiated a rulemaking to migrate the legal users.

In fact, under a fair reading of the rules, if the FCC does nothing, licensed wireless microphone systems may enjoy equal or superior rights to 700 MHz Auction winners. OTOH, no one involved is stupid about the politics, giving an incentive to maintain a low profile. If you don’t mind telling shareholders that the NFL may have superior rights in the spectrum you just paid $16 Billion for.

Meanwhile, for those of us happy to see the NAB and the wireless microphone folks get their comeuppance, while not weeping overmuch for the incumbent wireless winners, one word: SCHWEET.

More below . . . .

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