The Great White Space Debate

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
The battle over white space is over. At least for now. And the forces of the future have prevailed.

Before I explain what I mean by this, let me backpedal a bit. If you own an iPhone, and you use it to connect to public Wi-Fi spots, it's been a great couple of weeks. Last week, AT&T announced that iPhone users (finally, after several false starts) now have free Wi-Fi access at all AT&T hotspots in the United States[*]. Yes, this means virtually all Starbucks and Barnes & Noble stores, plus a host of other locations. Adding icing to the cake, AT&T this week purchased Wayport, Inc., adding "an additional 20,000 hotspots in the U.S."

If you can't find free Wi-Fi access for your iPhone after this, you're not really trying.

But back to the white space controversy. It too relates to those of us who connect via wireless networks. But it potentially affects all such users, not just iPhone owners. As reported in the New York Times this week: "The Federal Communications Commission voted 5 to 0 to approve a new use for the unlicensed frequencies, known as white spaces." These white spaces are the frequencies between digital television channels (the same channels that will completely replace over-the-air analog channels in February). Rather than let this white space sit idle and go to waste, a decision was made to allow its use it for wireless communications between electronic devices. If it all works out as hoped, this white space will enable much faster wireless transfer of data than with current Wi-Fi networks. Imagine even big video files, such as full-length movies, transferring in a fraction of the time they now require. Yup. That's why tech companies from Google to Microsoft fully support the decision and are nearly drooling at the prospects.

Sounds wonderful. Almost too good to be true. Who could possibly object to this technological advance? Perhaps a few Luddites who still see the Internet as a conspiracy to put an end to hand-written letters. But surely no one else.

Actually, as it turns out, a surprising collection of people do object. These naysayers work in the live performance business (as described more in this article) -- from Broadway producers to concert performers. Perhaps because she represents New York, the home of Broadway, Senator Hillary Clinton sides with these opponents. As unlikely as it may sound, televangelist Rick Warren, together with the entire National Religious Broadcasters association, have also joined the chorus of objectors.

What exactly is the big objection? What could have united Rick Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Dolly Parton on this issue? Here it is: Devices, such as the wireless microphones used at most live performances, access the same or similar white space as will be assigned to these new wireless networks. The fear is that the next generation of wireless gadgets could interfere with the workings of these microphones.

That's it. I'm not kidding. I even received an email last week from a musicians association, urging me to give them my support in this monumental battle. At first I thought it was satire. It wasn't. From the decibel level of the objections, you would think that we are about to witness nothing less than the complete demise of live performances, a permanent darkening of the lights on the Great White Way.

The F.C.C. claims that they have investigated this complaint and found little reason for concern. While they found "some potential for disruption," they had confidence "that interference could be mitigated through tight regulation of new devices." While there is often good reason to be skeptical of F.C.C. decisions (especially during these Bush years), I don't believe this is the case here.

I am confident that any problems will be surmountable. Heck, we've managed to survive cell phones in movie theaters. I think we'll survive this too. I certainly don't see the objections as a reason to stop what otherwise appears to be a great boon in wireless communication for all consumers. However, I admit that I don't know with certainty how all of this will play out (apparently no one else does either). As Dennis Miller used to say: That's just my opinion; I could be wrong.

[*Tech note: To get online for free at AT&T locations, select the attwifi network and enter your mobile number when asked. You should next receive a text message that contains a link. Tap the link and you're in -- free for the next 24 hours.]

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Comments

TS

It’s not just live performances; those of us in TV production are worried about this as well. Wireless, while indispensable in production work today, can already be flaky. How much worse is it going to get? And if I have to buy all new kinds of mics, why does my company have to pay for some bureaucrat’s lousy decision? Is Google and MicroSoft going to buy the gear for me? They’re the ones who will make more money with this new ruling.
——-

Michael Mays

“While they found ‘some potential for disruption,’ they had confidence ‘that interference could be mitigated through tight regulation of new devices.’”

What? What tight regulation? Narrower bands? What would that do to existing technology that can’t function in those narrower bands? Do they insanely expect that all those cell phones and similar wireless devices to all place nice within a sliver of the spectrum? Folks, it is NOT going to happen. There will be too many new cell phones to FIT in some “tightly regulated” range.

It is inconsiderate of the FCC to impose a complete change-of-procedure to houses of worship, theaters, and other entertainment venues. Many of these places currently have heavy investments in wireless equipment, and you guys think it’s okay for the government to open up their bandwidth to obsolete this (relatively new) equipment? You must not know anything about this problem.

Go visit a place like MusiciansFriend.com and have a look at the wireless offerings. If you want to incorporate more than, say, four wireless devices (and even a garage band could exceed that, to say nothing of theaters’ or churches’ needs) in the current wireless spectrum, it can cost as much as $500 for a CHEAP 4-channel system. But this decision obsoletes all that—now these places have to go invest in new equipment that will be more focused to operate in the more crowded spectrum. Like that won’t be expensive—you remember how much DVD burners cost when they first came out, right? What about BlueRay players? Are all these institutions just supposed to wait on the technology to come down in price before upgrading their equipment? This is just absurd.

ctopher

The EETimes did a nice print article about this issue.
http://www.eetimes.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=210200288

The fears seem legit, even for TV watchers, not just wireless mic users. It seems the white space radios have to be intelligent and change frequencies when they detect another signal. But will they be? And will it be good enough? DTV, for it’s great picture, can be a reception nightmare for seemingly no apparent reason. I worry that the FCC wants to push new technology (read cater to well-heeled lobbyists) rather than give the technology the shakedown it really needs.

palapalooza

You’ll be wanting to buy new mics anyway, because after people start developing new products for the white-space there’s going to be a big increase in quality.  You’ll notice that so far very few audio companies are complaining.  That’s because they’re busy at work creating new equipment that’s better.

Also, your argument that we should stifle a major wi-fi innovation just so you don’t have to buy a new microphone is astoundingly lame.

So start saving up, or get left behind.

Tedious

The fact that none of these people can envision a new microphone that works over Wifi instead of FM shows how myopic humans are.

A radio transmitter is a radio transmitter.  Just change the frequency* and use it just like any other thing with an IP address: put them behind a firewall and on their own subnet.

This will probably lead to great breakthroughs in recording and recording technology, not to mention frequency modulation.  It’s time microphones went all digital signal.

*yes, you’ll have to buy new gear as your current gear probably doesn’t have a “frequency adjustment knob”.

AttK

[quote comment=“5636”]The fact that none of these people can envision a new microphone that works over Wifi instead of FM shows how myopic humans are.

A radio transmitter is a radio transmitter.  Just change the frequency* and use it just like any other thing with an IP address: put them behind a firewall and on their own subnet.

This will probably lead to great breakthroughs in recording and recording technology, not to mention frequency modulation.  It’s time microphones went all digital signal.

*yes, you’ll have to buy new gear as your current gear probably doesn’t have a “frequency adjustment knob”.

This is a great idea, but won’t hack it in REAL-TIME audio…  there is WAY too much latency in wi-fi for it to be used for live performance.  Only control data is used via wi-fi in the audio industry for this exact reason.

Digital wireless systems have existed for some time now, BUT THEY STILL NEED AN RF CARRIER FREQUENCY…  Digital doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if you have interference on the same frequency you’re using!!!  All digital does is help with audio quality and accuracy…

Most better wireless systems are frequency-selectable.  What you probably don’t realize is that the FCC has managed to take away the entire 700-750 Mhz band for pro audio use… even though these frequencies were just opened up a few years ago!!!  We’re not talking about replacing 10-year-old gear here, more like 1-year-old systems.  I’d be upset if I had to do this…

Just wait for the next superbowl incident when some idiot comes on over the live TV feed spouting obscenities….  then you might realize this IS actually a big deal.  Some of us depend on this stuff to work accurately for our livlihood…

Tbob

“So start saving up, or get left behind.”

Obviously you don’t work for any company that will be affected.

I do and Ctopher is right, the FCC is pushing technology ahead to cater to the well heeled.

There is millions and millions of dollar tied up in the current gear that venues and companies have and those of use who were protesting it were not asking that it not happen.  This is an inevitable step forward and yes, Tedious, we can envision WiFi mics and digital gear far better than you probably can as we work with the gear day in and day out.

We were asking that it be delayed until there was a suitable solution in place for working around the interference problem so the millions of dollars invested in the current gear was not forced into obsolescence.

It would be really great if a few of you actually gathered the facts and did some reading before espousing your opinion.

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