Broadcasters oppose use of vacant channels for Internet

Times Staff Writer

What’s more important: broadcast TV or high-speed Internet access?

Not surprisingly, broadcasters choose TV. And they launched a lobbying blitz Monday to prevent technology companies from potentially causing interference on over-the-air television signals in a quest to hook up more people to the Internet.

“Only in Washington would we have to make the case for interference-free TV,” said David K. Rehr, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., Intel Corp. and other technology companies want the Federal Communications Commission to let them use vacant TV channels, known as “white spaces,” for a new generation of wireless, Web-surfing devices. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin and many lawmakers see those channels -- ranging from about a third of the TV airwaves in Los Angeles and other major cities to three-fourths in rural areas -- as an untapped resource that could boost the country’s poor international ranking for accessibility of broadband Internet service.


“The promise that this spectrum holds for bringing broadband to more Americans is too great to ignore,” said Scott Blake Harris, counsel to the White Spaces Coalition, a group formed by the technology companies to press the issue. Use of the airwaves would be free, similar to Wi-Fi, and the group said devices could share the airwaves with TV stations without interference.

The proposal, which the FCC is scheduled to consider next month, has sparked a major battle between the two industries.

Broadcasters zealously guard access to the airwaves set aside decades ago for television. They started airing TV ads in Washington against the proposal Monday and brought in industry executives to lobby the FCC and Congress. With a federal mandate that stations air only digital signals starting in early 2009, broadcasters said this was no time for risky experiments. About 20% of households receive only over-the-air television.

Though interference causes static or ghostly images on traditional analog TV, the effect on digital signals is worse -- the picture breaks up or freezes.

“Your neighbors will be causing interference to your set. You will have no idea where it’s coming from,” said David Donovan, president of the Assn. for Maximum Service Television, the engineering trade group of TV broadcasters. The broadcasters are joined in their effort by the major sports leagues and ESPN, which said the devices also threatened to interfere with wireless microphones used by coaches, officials and announcers during games.

Broadcasters said it was too difficult for small gadgets to detect TV signals as well as large TV sets, and they point to results released over the summer in FCC tests of prototype devices submitted by Microsoft and Philips Electronics North America Corp.


Microsoft’s device was unable to detect TV signals in field testing, the key to avoiding interference. But Microsoft said afterward that the device was broken. The Philips prototype detected TV signals in a laboratory setting but was not designed for field testing. It had mixed results in detecting wireless microphones, according to the FCC.

Martin told a House subcommittee in the spring that he supported the use of portable devices as long as they did not interfere with TV signals. FCC officials declined to say whether they would require more tests before making a decision. The technology companies plan to submit their own test results that show the prototypes can avoid TV stations, said Edmond J. Thomas, senior technology policy advisor to the White Spaces Coalition.

Broadcasters support the FCC’s decision last fall to allow use of the vacant channels by fixed wireless devices, such as high-speed Internet receivers in homes. Those devices could be programmed to avoid the TV channels in the area. But mobile devices would have to search for TV stations to avoid as they are moved from place to place, and the FCC took a slower approach to approving their use.