700-MHz Auctions, White Noise, Speech RecognitionFriday, April 18, 2008
The House sub-committee on telecommunications and the Internet held its hearings on the 700-MHz auctions on Tuesday. So what? Nothing changed, no decisions were made and it is now back to the FCC. There was lots of posturing and we are no closer to a solution. Oh well, politics at its finest once again.
Meanwhile, those who want to use the “white space” between TV channels in each of our U.S. cities for more unlicensed broadband access and those who don’t want it to happen are gearing up for a fight. At the recent NAB conference (National Association of Broadcasters), there was a lot of negative sentiment about using white space for unlicensed services, and on the other side, the Wireless Innovation Association (WIA), made up of members such as Google, Microsoft and a host of other companies, says this idea will work just fine. The NAB points to the failure of the equipment submitted by the WIA in FCC tests and is fearful about interference and the CTIA opposes white noise usage because it is protecting its members. So who will win? If Congress and the FCC really believe unlicensed spectrum can be an effective tool to gain wireless access to the Internet, then the WIA will win. If they are realistic enough to understand that wide-area Wi-Fi (Muni-Wi-Fi) has been a disaster, the NAB side will win. It is strange that I hear about “protecting HD TV and wireless microphones” but not a word about protecting first responder communications that already use white space in major cities such as LA, Chicago, New York and elsewhere. So it is not okay to interfere with a wireless mike, but is it okay to interfere with a police radio? (Sounds a bit like the Nextel issue to me.)
The difference between sharing spectrum when both parties are licensed and when one is licensed and the others are not is the difference between being able to cure interference issues in a timely manner or not. If San Francisco PD is interfering with Channel 20 (KBWB), the engineers at the TV station know who to contact to work on resolving the problem. But if there is interference from some unknown source because the white space is available for unlicensed operation, how does the station resolve the interference?
My final point here is that not a single muni-Wi-Fi system is making money in the United States, and there is more and more interference. Wi-Fi at 2.4 GHz is very short range (300 feet). But if we permit unlicensed access in unused TV channels in major cities, for example, SF and Channel 19, which is 480 to 486 MHz (each TV channel is 6 MHz wide), then the unlicensed users’ systems will cover a lot more than a few hundred feet and could easily interfere with neighbors for several blocks. The TV station would not have a clue about who to contact unless it spent hours with specialized equipment to find the culprit. Once fixed, there is nothing that says another problem would not pop up in the next block.
Licensed spectrum is not only about who holds the license, it is also about who is accountable for the proper operation of the devices on that spectrum. They are required by FCC law to make sure that any and all devices (base stations and customer devices) meet a certain standard. Even so, there are times when there are problems with interference that don’t get resolved quickly. Case in point, a two-way radio operator in the middle of this country has a license for a group of frequencies that he has been using for more than twenty years, leasing space to his customers for shared usage. Recently, Nextel has, three times, turned on the same channels in the same area even though it does not have a license for this spectrum. The FCC enforcement bureau has been unable to assist the spectrum holder, who has a valid license, because it has been “downsized” due to budget constraints. In another recent case, commercial fisherman in the Pacific Ocean have been buying ham radio equipment and using it for communications. Why you ask? Because if they talked among themselves on their own licensed spectrum, they would be sharing information with not only their friends but with many other fisherman. It took a group of ham radio operators more than six months of leg work and recording the conversations to interest the FCC and another six months to convince it to take any action.
If there is no government enforcement and no licenses, how do you resolve issues that will crop up? The unlicensed spectrum holders are required by law to “accept any and all interference to their systems caused by licensed operators and to not cause any interference to licensed operators.” But the question remains that if there is no license on file, how do you identify the source of the interference?
I guess my experiences designing and implementing radio systems for the past forty years has made me somewhat cynical when it comes to interference issues—I have chased a lot of them over the years. Rusted barbed wire makes a great mixer and antenna, rusted bolts on a tower the same, and a radio that has not been properly tuned can put out a lot if interference. Even the FCC rules permit some interference in the next channel over, but the bottom line is when you can identify the company or person creating the interference, you can work with them to resolve it. If you cannot indentify them, you cannot fix the problem.
If you want to hear just how good speech recognition has become, dial Dir-ect-ions (347-328-4667) and ask for turn-by-turn directions(they are not a client and we have no affiliation with them). I know there are many ways to get turn-by-turn directions including your navigation system and your phone with Tele-Nav or VZ Navigator installed on it, but the people at Dial Directions are giving turn-by-turn directions away to consumers so we can see how good its speech recognition is. I was in San Diego this week and decided to try the system and measure it against my in car nav system and my VZ Navigator so I called the number and was asked where I wanted to go and where I was. I wanted to drive home, so I gave the address, and when it asked where I was, I said I was at 5550 La Jolla Village Drive in San Diego. Moments later, I received three text messages detailing my trip home.
What I did not get was an estimated time of arrival or an indication of total miles, but what I did get was very explicit turn-by-turn directions. To some of the questions I answered ‘sure’ instead of ‘yes’ and it understood my address and where I was starting from the first time I said it (and I had three two-way radios talking in the background). Dial Directions is also powering other services, but to me, the most important thing it had to show me was how good its speech recognition is. It is also offering a service (also free) to locate the nearest chain store (Starbucks, In-and-Out Burger, Home Depot, etc.). Again, you simply ask for the store by voice, tell it where you are, and it shows up as a text message or a WAP browser file you can click on. It will be better yet when it knows where you are and doesn’t have to ask, and when it can provide turn-by-turn directions and a view of the traffic on your route in real time. However, this is still an impressive service and the voice recognition is the best I have ever used.
Okay, I stole the Winding Down phrase from a good friend of mine, Jerry Pournelle, who used to write a column called “Chaos Manner” and now has his own blog, still cranking away. He and I have a lot in common because we both bemoan the fact that technology invented by great engineers is not easy for the common person to use and we both believe it can be made easier and, therefore, more widely adopted if only those who write the software spend a little time considering those of us who don’t write software.
There is still a lot of finger pointing in the 700-MHz auction. Some Representatives resent the fact that Google “gamed the auction” (their words), some blame the Public Safety Spectrum Trust and Cyren Call for the failure of the D block auction and others bemoan the fact that more rural America bidders did not end up owning spectrum. What if they had? Where is the financial model to cover rural America with broadband services? How about if we move forward to fix the rural America issue and the first responders’ need for a common data network all at once?
Just something to think about until my next blog entry.
Andrew M. Seybold