Of Wireless Microphones, Broadcast White Spaces, Field Testing, and Public Safety.
Of Wireless Microphones, Broadcast White Spaces, Field Testing, and Public Safety.
Of Wireless Microphones, Broadcast White Spaces, Field Testing, and Public Safety.

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    As folks may have heard, the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition filed a complaint against wireless microphone manufacturers and a Petition for Rulemaking last week. As I explain on my Wetmachine blog here, the filing has the dual purpose of cleaning up a potentially nasty mess in the broadcast UHF bands before the public safety and new commercial services start operating on Channels 52-69, and finally have an honest conversation about wireless microphones in the context of the FCC's ongoing proceeding to open the white spaces to productive use. (FCC Docket No. 04-186 for those interested.)

    Briefly, the vast majority of wireless microphone users have no right to use the broadcast white spaces. While the number of wireless microphone users may exceed 1 million, only 952 users have actually licensed systems. In theory, the FCC should be sending out SWAT teams and busting every Broadway theater, business conference center, and megachurch that filed in the white spaces proceeding and confessed to a federal felony. But the reality is more complicated, especially as most of these folks have no clue that they are spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on systems that make them “radio pirates” subject to confiscation of equipment and a fine of $11,000 per violation per day.

    Still, with the dirty little secret of widespread illegal use out in the open, we can begin having some real discussion about what level of interference mitigation to impose on white spaces devices with regard to wireless microphones. After all, it is one thing to protect the less than 1000 licensed and legally authorized systems. It is another thing altogether to ask legally authorized white space devices protect illegally operating wireless microphones. It is also rather ridiculous to see unauthorized users “contaminating” the white spaces — without any sort of sensing technology or other interference avoidance intelligence — demanding that authorized, legally operated white spaces devices should be required to have not merely sensing, but also a “permission” beacon and continually access an online database because sensing might not be good enough to protect the million illegal wireless microphones that got there first.

    Which brings me to the recent offers from various wireless microphone users on white space testing. ESPN and the NFL, licensed users, have every right to ask that the FCC do field tests at a football game. I'm sure it is pure coincidence that this will delay things even further, since they want to wait for a regular season game, and that the environment in an NFL football game is under the complete control of those most hostile to authorizing white spaces devices. We'll also ignore the fact that an NFL game is a radio-frequency environment unlike any other, and is rather like testing new kids pajamas for fire-resistance by dropping them in a volcano. The key point here is that ESPN and NFL have a right to ask, just as we all have a right to point out the potential problems with this generous offer.

    But it is another thing altogether when the Recording Academy offers the Lollapalooza Festival as field site. Again, the notion that testing a prototype in an environment that is more intense and complicated than anything a white space device will encounter in day-to-day operation is all part of the game. As NAB demonstrated in the wake of the successful field test of the Motorola prototype near BWI Airport, NAB and other white spaces opponents will always proclaim the test a “failure” no matter the actual result. The question is how obviously do white space devices get to stack the deck while pretending to play fair?

    But with Lollapalooza, and Broadway, and the other “entertainment” venues, the question is a little different than with licensed users like SPN or NFL. The FCC can and should ask any party offering a test site to show they have a license to operate a Part 74, Subpart H wireless microphone system. Granted before we brought this out into the open, we could expect the FCC to quietly ignore this issue. But asking the FCC to stand in the middle of intense use of illegally operated wireless equipment should be an embarrassment to these people, not proudly filed as an effort to box the FCC into ridiculous “field tests” that have no experimental controls and have nothing to do with actual operating conditions. Furthermore, it's not like the FCC can — or should — require white spaces devices to protect illegally operated wireless microphones. So even if the test did “fail,” so what? Failing to protect radio pirates is a problem?

    Finally, for the FCC to show up at a site that intensely uses unauthorized equipment in an illegal manner should be embarrassing for the FCC. I mean, common guys! How do you look “pirate” radio broadcasters doing a better job of serving their local communities in the eye and say “We know Clear Channel, Viacom, and the rest of the big chains that own your radio stations don't care about you, and we know you don't create any interference, but — gosh darn it! — we got law to enforce,” then go stand hip deep in illegal wireless broadcasters embraced by those same big broadcast conglomerates because they find it politically convenient to do so?

    While I don't know that the folks at OET will notice the unfortunate political aspect of what is now a rather flagrant display of contempt for FCC licensing requirements (I love OET, in part because they are such engineers when it comes to this stuff), I would expect the Commissioners will notice, and not take kindly to needing to explain why they chose to ignore massive widespread violations of their rules during an interference test.

    As one last side note, I should observe that PISC are not alone in calling for the FCC to do something about the problem of illegal wireless microphone use before public safety and new commercial services take over Channels 52-69. 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. Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than PISC have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. PISC, 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. Indeed, before authorizing the General Wireless Microphone Service (GWMS) we proposed, perhaps we should require wireless microphones to undergo field testing. Maybe we should have them ride along with firefighters and run into burning buildings with them — just to test that wireless microphones and the new public safety systems can co-exist.

    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. Because however much we may care about NFL games or Lollapalooza, I would hope we care a little bit more about public safety.

    Or, we could actually try to develop rational spectrum mitigation measures that address real issues while maximizing productive use of the white spaces, instead of playing political games with testing to protect an existing monopoly on spectrum use.