NFL, ESPN Request Test of White-Space Devices At Games

The National Football League (NFL) and the ESPN sports television network have offered to allow the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to test so-called white-space devices during football games later this year.

The wireless broadband white-space devices, or WSDs, would operate spectrum assigned to U.S. television stations but unused by them. Makers of wireless microphones, such as those used by referees and TV announcers at football games, have operated their devices on that unused TV spectrum, generally without getting licenses from the FCC, and have opposed efforts by tech vendors such as Microsoft, Google and Dell to open up the white spaces to wireless broadband devices.

Those companies say FCC approval of the use of the white spaces for wireless broadband would create a more competitive broadband market and could lead to innovative new devices. Wireless microphone and TV stations have raised concerns about interference with their signals.

The NFL and ESPN, also expressing concern about interference, requested the FCC run field tests on white-space devices after a handful of devices have failed during internal FCC tests.

“It’s time to move from the practice field to the playing field,” Ken Kerschbaumer, executive director of the Sports Video Group, said in a statement. “We are concerned that these white-space devices could cause harmful interference with wireless devices used during live sports events."

The Sports Video Group is a coalition of sports leagues, teams, broadcasters and webcasters focused on delivering video over broadband.

The NFL offered the football stadiums for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins as locations for field tests.

"As the commission is aware, NFL facilities heavily use and rely upon wireless equipment as does ESPN in its taping and broadcast of the game," the NFL and ESPN said in a letter to the FCC on Thursday. "We strongly believe that field testing of WSDs with wireless microphones under real-world circumstances is essential to ensure that any proposed operation, and the commission’s rules for WSDs, reflect the needs of new users and provide protection to the incumbent users."

The Wireless Innovation Alliance, made up of technology vendors and other supporters of opening up the white spaces, said it would accept the field tests proposed by the NFL and ESPN.

"We support information gathering on the use of white-space technology and welcome the NFL's invitation," said Brian Peters, a spokesman for the alliance. "While the success of this technology will not be determined by a single test in a single venue before commercial devices have even been designed, it is encouraging that the NFL now understands the importance of realizing the promise of this innovation and is willing to participate in the process."

However, Peters added that it's clear the field test "is an attempt to further delay the process" of using WSDs. "We have to wonder when enough proof will really be enough," he said.

Earlier this month, the alliance proposed a plan for the white spaces that it said would protect wireless mics from interference. Under the proposal, white-space devices would use two technologies to look for other signals in the spectrum, but the wireless mic industry has been cool to the proposal.

Also this month, GE Healthcare accepted a proposal from the alliance that would make TV channels 36 to 38 off-limits to WSDs in order to protect its medical equipment that operates in those channels.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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