Representatives from seven major sports leagues came to lobby members of Congress and the FCC to keep unlicensed devices out of the white space. White space refers to vacant frequencies between TV channels that serve as buffers, preventing TV broadcast signals from interfering with one another. Wireless microphones have capitalized on this empty, using it to broadcast their signal without causing interference. The FCC is now considering whether other devices should have the same right to use the white space. The Sports Technology Alliance fear devices operating in the white space could interfere with microphones and headsets used by coaches, officials and sportscasters.
When I first heard about these meetings I was thrust into a moment of deep self-doubt. Did I have so much faith in the god of competitive broadband that I was willing to sacrifice the dedicated group of athletes, coaches and sportscasters that served as a second father to me growing up? Would an increase in rural broadband penetration really be worth never hearing another “Awesome baby!” come out of Dick Vitale's sweet, lustrous lips?
Fortunately, thanks to some smart technology, we will never have to make such a choice.
The White Space Coalition, a group of technology companies wishing to use the white space for wireless broadband, has already submitted two “cognitive radio” prototypes, one by Microsoft, one by Phillips Electronics to the FCC for testing. These radios have the potential to drastically change the way devices use spectrum. Unlike radio transmitters today, these cognitive radios, or “smart radios,” can “listen before they talk.” They listen to a frequency and see if anything is being broadcasted on it. If they don't hear anything, they go ahead and transmit their own signal over the frequency.
A device armed with such technology can find white space wherever it goes. If TV broadcasters use channels 4, 5, and 7, but not 6, the device would transmit on channel 6 without anyone telling it to. The White Space Coalition envisions a future with cognitive radio routers sending broadband signals long distances over the spectrum left vacant by TV broadcasters.
Sports leagues are understandably nervous about such a future. Though no broadcasters are using the white space, it has not been going completely unused. Wireless microphones, such as the ones used by newscasters, football coaches and NASCAR drivers, all operate in the white space. If wireless broadband started to be sent over the same spectrum, it would cause interference with the microphones that make sports run smoothly right?
Wrong! The White Space Coalition made clear, on page 6 of their ex partefiling at the FCC that the cognitive radio prototype they submitted would have the “ability to search out candidate white channels for wireless microphone-like signals.” Devices using the cognitive radio technology pose no harm to the microphones used by sports leagues.
Broadcasters and wireless microphone users alike ought to sit back and let the Office of Engineering Technology test these new cognitive radios before claiming they will cause interference with their singles. The FCC still might be able to protect American's rights to competitive broadband without infringing on professional quarterback's rights to have their coach think for them at all times.