Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC Starts Its Wireless Microphone Investigation. Will Broadcasters Throw Broadway Under A Bus?

The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.

Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.

I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.

To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)

I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.

Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.

What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.

Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.

The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.

Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces Update — Field Testing Can Be Soooo Educational. You Always Find Something You Don’t Expect.

As folks may recall, the primary opponents of opening the broadcast white spaces for use, the broadcasters and the wireless microphone manufacturers — notably our good friend and radio pirate Shure, Inc. (official slogan:“We get to break the law ’cause we sound so good”) — insisted that the FCC conduct field tests on the white spaces prototypes. Of course, because these are concept prototypes and not functioning devices certified to some actual standard, everyone knew this would leave lots of leeway for the broadcasters and the wireless microphone folks to declare the “tests” a “failure” regardless of the actual results. Which, of course, they did. Needless to say, Phillips (which makes one of the prototypes) said the opposite, and it all depends on whether you mean “the device functioned perfectly as if there were actually some standards for building a functioning device” or “the device proved it could detect occupied channels at whatever sensitivity the FCC decides is necessary.” The FCC engineers, wisely, made no comment and went back to their labs to analyze the actual data.

But one of the nice things about field testing is that you learn the most amazing things that you can never learn in a lab, as demonstrated by this ex parte filed by Ed Thomas for the White Spaces Coalition, the industry group that backs opening the white spaces. Apparently, in front of eye witnesses (including the FCC’s engineers), both broadcasters and unauthorized wireless microphone users in the Broadway field test operated wireless microphones on active television channels, at power levels well above what white spaces advocates propose for mobile devices. All apparently without interfering with anybody’s television reception or even — in the case of the unauthorized Broadway users — screwing up the hundreds of other illegal wireless microphones in the neighboring theaters.

A few rather important take aways here: (1) the danger of interference claims by broadcasters and Shure are utterly bogus, as the wireless microphones do not screw up either television reception or each other; (b) the broadcasters and Shure know their interference claims are bogus. If they actually cared on iota about possible interference, they would not casually operate high power wireless microphones on the same channel as active television broadcasts and as each other. Instead, they are so unconcerned about interference that they can’t even remember to pretend to care about basic interference concerns when they are conducting a field test in front of the FCC’s own engineers.

A bit more elaboration on these points below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wireless Mic Follow Up: Turns Out Public Safety Did Get There First

One may logically ask, if I am right about the wireless microphones being such a big problem for public safety, why haven’t the public safety folks complained to the FCC about this?

Answer: turns out they have. But, the public safety folks being quiet and unassuming, failed to make themselves heard.

Allow me to change that. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, a federation of public safety associations, sent a letter to Chairman Martin asking that the FCC address the problem of wireless microphones back on June 30, 2008. i.e., about two weeks before I filed. While I wish I could claim that it was the NPSTC letter that inspired me, I had no idea it was out there until today. My conversations with the public safety guys were all informal and off the record. Still, as always when folks remind me I’m not an engineer (or an economist, or technologist, or any of the other topics on which I chose to share my humble layperson’s opinion), I am rather pleased to find a bunch of actual engineers that agree with me.

Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than I have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. I, OTOH, think lots of folks can productively use the broadcast white spaces. Still, I do feel compelled to point out that wireless microphones do not have nearly the level of intelligence/sophistication being discussed for interference avoidance for the white spaces devices at issue in 04-186. Perhaps we should require wireless microphones to rely on sensing as well, or require that they consult an online database for possible new users in the band, or require them to acknowledge some sort of “permissive beacon.” Perhaps public safety entities like NPSTC should administer the database or beacon, and we should require wireless microphone users to pay for these services.

I mean, after all, we wouldn’t want to let these devices run around loose, would we? Think of the terrible interference that might cause. Unless these devices can meet the same rigorous standards that Shure and others seek to impose on unlicensed devices in 04-186, I don’t see how we can ask NPSTC to abide by circumstances that they feel place our public safety at risk.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

We File Wireless Microphone Complaint: Shure Says Breaking Law Should Be OK If You Sound Good.

As regular readers will know, among my many wireless fixations are the use of the broadcast white spaces and the 700 MHz auction. So what happens when I get to combine the two together?

Answer: A 50 page complaint and Petition for Rulemaking, another 175 pages of evidence that Shure and other manufacturers have been marketing wireless microphones in violation of FCC rules, then using the victims of this deceptive marketing scam as “human shields” in the white spaces debate, and a possible road map toward solving the potential for massive interference with new public safety and wireless services operating on the returned UHF bands. As a side benefit, it also provides a route to authorization for the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of illegal wireless microphones, finds a use for that leftover 5 MHZ band in the AWS-2/AWS-3 proceeding (waste not want not), and potentially changes the debate in the white spaces fight by getting the goddamn fact that the overwhelming majority of wireless microphones are (at the moment) used illegally out in the open so people can have a rational discussion about interference protection.

Oh yeah, and it will require the wireless microphone manufacturers to clean up the mess by exchanging the old, unauthorized equipment for new equipment that doesn’t work on Channels 52-69. I love a plan that only punishes the guilty rather than letting the wireless microphone guys reap yet another windfall by requiring the unauthorized users to pay for their own equipment replacement.

And what was Shure’s response to the complaint? According to the Associated Press, Shure did not deny breaking the law. Instead, they said: “today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme.”

Or, in other words, “yeah, we broke the law — but it doesn’t matter because we will use Broadway and churches as human shields if you try to go after us” (insert international gesture of respect performed with raised middle finger at FCC).

You can see the press release here, and get copies of our complaint/Petition here. (Links to the Exhibits are on the press page.) You can see a bit more analysis from yr hmbl obdn’t below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Follow Up On Medical Devices: Smarter Devices And Smarter Policy, Not More Bandwidth

So I’ve been following up more since initial post yesterday. As a general matter, I recommend interested readers start with this piece from the FDA’s website, followed by the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) FAQ on wireless medical telemetry devices and the digital transition. OET does not see this as likely to cause a big deal because there’s plenty of empty “white spaces” out there after the digital transition and users can adjust their devices as digital televisions come online.

Well, I hope they are right about that, although I’d feel a lot better if someone were responsible for actually keeping track of this and making sure that users get informed. Under the rules, there are notification requirements for when a station goes live with its digital signal so hospitals can make changes. That works as long as folks are paying attention, of course. In any event, in case OET is looking for more work (or someone on the Hill wants to step up), I would suggest that it would be awfully nice to know what the state of the industry is. But I suspect the right place to do that is really the FDA not the FCC, or perhaps the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But there is a broader lesson here. As with wireless microphones and a host of other specific low power applications, the real problem is not capacity. The problem is that we have a legacy system that slices spectrum uses into these discrete little services rather than allowing general low power unlicensed use and using cognitive radios to avoid interference.

Hospitals provide a particularly useful environment for smart devices, because they have so many noisy devices, sensitive devices, and such an expanding need for wireless devices for medical telemetry. Imagine a device that works equally well in all locations of the hospital without putting other systems at risk because it senses and adjusts for its radio frequency environment in a real-time basis. If another doctor starts up a device in a neighboring bed that is noise generator, the device monitoring my patient will move to a clear frequency. Devices and systems could even be tagged for priority, so that a mobile monitor attached to a patient knows that it must give the “right of way” to the cardiac ward systems if they come into conflict.

But more specifically here, there is nothing that existing wireless medical telemetry devices authorized in the band do that could not be replicated more flexibly and at lower cost by authorizing generic low-power white spaces devices. This is essentially the same problem as with wireless microphones. If wireless microphones had never received a special dispensation to function in the broadcast white spaces as a licensed ancillary service, you could replicate these systems with unlicensed white spaces devices. But, like the QWERTY typewriter, they are an embedded technology. And they have a constituency that, quite logically, resists change and argues that it plays an important role that generic devices could not replicate.

We thus have the irony of everybody agreeing there is “plenty of white space” for existing secondary users like wireless microphones and medical telemetry, but supposedly no room for the next generation of devices that could do the job of both technologies and bring us a host of other applications besides. We could cure this with more powerful cognitive radios, but the same natural conservatism by incumbents against any intrusion in “their” spectrum makes any movement in that direction politically difficult (as demonstrated by the FCC terminating two promising proceedings last year).

We therefore have the classic political and collective action result of fixing the wrong problem, at least from a public policy perspective. Rather than expanding wireless use generally, we make the new, more useful generic technology subordinate to the existing stakeholders. It is rather like what would have happened if harness makers and farriers had been able to demand that automobiles must protect their industries before being allowed to share the road with the horse and buggy.

Hardly a new problem or an original observation, I recognize. This has been the lament of spectrum reformers since five minutes after the first licenses were issued and the rest of us got cut off. Still, I keep hoping that this time around we’ll manage to get the right result and not let the embedded old technology trump the next generation of users.

Stay tuned . . . .

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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

Brief Update On $16 Billion Termites

SO it turns out in 2003, the FCC amended the rules — but only with regard to higher power services governed by Subpart F. These higher power services were explicitly made secondary to any new entrants following the digital transition. (See 47 CFR 74.602(h)(3)). But the lower power wireless microphones governed by Part H (47 CFR 74.800 et seq) were not so designated.

I suppose an argument can (and will) be made that the FCC’s 2003 BAS Order designated all BAS services as secondary to new entrants in Channels 52-69. But it should be reflected in the rules, and failure to modify 47 CFR 74.802 creates legal headaches at the very least. And, even if the argument is accepted, it doesn’t solve the problem of all the legacy equipment in the hands of tens of thousands of users who will potentially be screwing up the new licensed wireless systems.

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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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Google Makes A White Spaces Concession.

In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.

For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .

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