FCC White Space Approval Raises Spectre Of Interference - InformationWeek

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11/6/2008
01:48 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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FCC White Space Approval Raises Spectre Of Interference

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing (well, actually I am), but the FCC's approval of the use of "white space" broadcast spectrum for Wi-Fi is the kind of move which could only happen in an age when computers have apparently wiped out the collective technical consciousness of the entire radio and television era. Yep, I'm talking the vast potential for interference amongst the coming unlicensed services.

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing (well, actually I am), but the FCC's approval of the use of "white space" broadcast spectrum for Wi-Fi is the kind of move which could only happen in an age when computers have apparently wiped out the collective technical consciousness of the entire radio and television era. Yep, I'm talking the vast potential for interference amongst the coming unlicensed services.No, I'm not down with technical expert extraordinaire Dolly Parton, who was put forth as the spokesperson for Broadway producers afraid the new do-dads will interfere with the wireless microphones used at their shows. However, she does have a point -- the point being not that unlicensed devices are in and of themselves bad. Rather, the problem is, when an unlicensed device causes interference, you can't do much about it because you can't identify the source of said interference.

In the old days (the days before the FCC's decision today), when a licensed source was emitting broadband crap, you could track it down (at least in theory, and often in practice) and stanch the interference at its source. (If only because, if said licensee didn't fix the problem, you could yank his license.)

The salient fact here is that even the FCC admits there's potential for unwanted -- I'd call it "wanton" instead -- interference in its plan to open up the stop-bands between TV stations to unlicensed Wi-Fi services.

We know this is true, because the FCC says that it will nip any problems via certification. Certification is essentially one step before licensing. It means that a device is given a stamp of approval at the manufacturer's end. As The New York Times explained it: "F.C.C. commissioners said they had confidence that interference could be mitigated through tight regulation of new devices. For devices to be automatically certified by the commission, they must include technology that determines whether they are in a location where the channels are protected for use by incumbent broadcasters; if they are, they must find some other channel to transmit on."

What the user does with a certified device, though, is often anyone's guess. As are false certification stickers. Remember, certification is not end-user licensing. In the old days, the FCC wouldn't let a person get near a transmitter without a firm demonstration of technical knowledge. (You still need a license to operate most classes of serious transmitters.)

True, there are arguments -- which make something of a valid point -- that things like software-defined radio and spread-spectrum technologies will go long way toward mitigating the potential interference problems of unlicensed white-space transmitters. I'd argue: yes, but. As in, this is true if the unlicensed device is a legit, certified product. However, if it's some cheapy thingy out of China, who's to say?

Anyway, so one can't really fight the likes of Google and Microsoft, who are hell-bent on gaining access to any and all available spectrum to promulgate Internet services into places better left electromagnetically fallow. (Do we really need Wi-Fi in the car and in the bathroom?)

All I'm saying is, the spectre of unlicensed interference doesn't sit well with those who were fiddling around with electronics before the PC came along and deluded digital types into believing that the analog world has been tamed. Not so fast, Sparky.


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