FCC Adopts NPRM Regarding Unlicensed Use of Broadcast TV Spectrum

May 13, 2004. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted, but did not release, a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) regarding use by unlicensed devices of broadcast television spectrum where the spectrum is not in use by broadcasters. The goal is to make more spectrum available (and spectrum that can go through walls) for networking electronic devices within premises, and for providing wireless broadband internet access.

The FCC issued a short release [2 pages in PDF] that briefly and vaguely describes this item. Each of the five Commissioners spoke, and issued a written statement.

rightFCC Chairman Michael Powell wrote in his prepared statement [PDF] that this use of unlicensed devices "promises to dramatically increase the availability and quality of wireless Internet connections -- the equivalent of doubling the number of lanes on a congested highway. Such technologies could create the same explosion in new business and growth that we have seen in the case of WiFi and Bluetooth. For instance, it could help bring high-speed Internet services to rural communities without the cables or wires."

Alan Stilwell of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET), presented this item at the FCC meeting. Ed Thomas, Chief OET, spoke about the item at a press conference after the meeting. Thomas further spoke with reporters after this press conference.

Stilwell enumerated some of the uses that the FCC contemplates. These would include wireless computer networking cards, wireless printer connections, wireless keyboards, and wireless headsets. Thomas said that this spectrum would be used for connecting electronic devices within a premises, and for internet access.

Stilwell and Thomas explained that unlicensed devices would use smart radio technology. As device "has to listen before it talks", said Thomas, in order to determine what channels are available. Then, these devices would use the available channels.

Stilwell stated that the NPRM proposes two categories of unlicensed devices, operating under Part 15 of the FCC rules, each with its own requirements. First, there would be the low power personal portable devices, such as PC cards. Second, there would be the higher powered fixed location devices, such as the wireless broadband internet access base stations.

The FCC release states that the NPRM proposes "to classify the unlicensed broadband devices that could be used in the TV bands into two general functional categories. The first category would consist of lower power ``personal/portable´´ unlicensed devices, such as Wi-Fi like cards in laptop computers or wireless in-home local area networks. The second category would consist of higher power ``fixed/access´´ unlicensed devices that are generally operated from a fixed location and may be used to provide a commercial service such as wireless broadband internet access."

The release states that the NPRM proposed "to allow both of these types of operations in the TV spectrum, provided appropriate measures are taken to ensure that operations are limited to unused TV channels. Different interference avoidance requirements are proposed for these two different types of unlicensed broadband applications. These proposals should provide flexibility to permit a wide range of unlicensed broadband uses and applications and ensure that the most appropriate and effective mechanisms are in place to limit such unlicensed use to only unused TV channels."

Stilwell stated that these devices would only be permitted to operate in vacant spectrum. This would mean channels 2-4 would be excluded. Channel 37, which is used for radio astronomy, would also be excluded. Channels 51 and above would be excluded because they have already been reallocated. Moreover, Channels 14-20 would be excluded in locations where they have been allocated for other use.

Thomas stated that one of the benefits of having unlicensed devices use TV spectrum is its propagation characteristics. That is, spectrum in the TV band, which is below 900 MHz, is better able to penetrate objects than the spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands that is currently used by many unlicensed devices. Said Thomas, "the good news is that it will penetrate buildings".

Thomas said that the amount of unused spectrum varies by market. He said that "in all markets there is some spectrum available". But, he said, there will be more unused spectrum in, for example, the mountains of the state of Montana.

Thomas said that the range of the wireless internet service providers (WISPs) using this spectrum would vary. He said that in flat rural areas the range would be about 10 miles, while in urban areas it would be about 1 to 1 1/2 miles. He also said that for base stations, the power would be "about 4 watts".

He also stated that he hopes the the FCC will adopt a report and order before the end of the year.

Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy wrote no separate statement. However, she stated at the meeting that in addition to there being requests for more spectrum for unlicensed use, "there are a lot of licensed users that deserve protection". She said that there are now "two camps", but that they "can coexist".

Commissioner Michael Copps wrote in his prepared statement [PDF] that "we must of course find ways to balance the need to provide spectrum resources for innovators, entrepreneurs, and new technologies with the equally important need to avoid harmful interference to incumbent users and consumers."

He added that "I want to encourage the Bureau and my colleagues to be vigilant to ensure that we have the investigative and enforcement resources and plans in place as we pursue more and more complicated spectrum arrangements. We may allow unlicensed operations in this band. And we have already allowed other tightly packed licensed and unlicensed use in other bands. Given the interference concerns these actions create, we must be able and ready to conduct independent harmful interference tests, and to act decisively when harmful interference has occurred."

Commissioner Kevin Martin wrote in his prepared testimony [PDF] that "While I am pleased that this proceeding has the potential to encourage new and innovative unlicensed services, I remain concerned about the proceeding’s impact on the broadcasters and their transition to digital television."

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wrote in his prepared testimony [PDF] that "I support today’s item because it looks creatively at methods to accommodate unlicensed operations in vacant TV bands, a portion of the spectrum that has such favorable propagation characteristics for wireless broadband services."

Jonathan AdelsteinBut, Adelstein (at right) repeated the concern expressed by Abernathy, Copps and Martin about interference with TV. He said that "The American people care a lot about the quality of their television reception. Television broadcasts are viewed by people as perhaps the most sacred use of public spectrum. Their TV is not to be trifled with."

Thomas addressed broadcasting also. He asserted that this proceeding could end up benefiting TV broadcasters. For example, he said that "putting a DTV receiver in every laptop computer" would expand the reach of television. Thomas added that "our hope is that we are changing the DTV environment", and that "there will be new instruments with DTV receivers in them".

However, Edward Fritts, the CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), released a statement in which he said that ""We have serious concerns that the introduction of unlicensed devices into the television band could result in unforeseen interference in broadcast service to millions of television viewers. Free, over-the-air television provides invaluable news, information and entertainment to local communities all over America and serves as a lifeline to citizens in times of crisis. We will work with the FCC to ensure that this proposal can be accommodated while preserving interference-free over-the-air television."

Thomas added that "the broadcasters are not a monolith".

This NPRM is FCC 04-113 in ET Docket Nos. 04-186 and 02-380. The Commission vote was 5-0.

The FCC announced a Notice of Inquiry [MS Word] (NOI) in its proceeding number 02-380 on December 11, 2002. See, story titled "FCC Announces Notice of Inquiry Re More Spectrum for Unlicensed Use" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 566, December 12, 2002. The FCC released its NOI on December 20, 2002.