Microsoft scrambles to explain prototype 'white space' device failure

It could be a single malfunctioning power supply. Or, from the other side of the glass, it could be a portent of doom for a technology that would make good use of all those TV channels that no one's broadcasting on, for wireless networking.

One of two prototype devices assembled on Microsoft's behalf for the US Federal Communications Commission for testing the ability to select wireless networking frequencies that don't interfere with TV signals, failed on account of a recurring power problem, three Microsoft sources confirmed to BetaNews today.

That failure alone has prompted the National Association of Broadcasters to proclaim the entire technology isn't worth pursuing.

"By failing two out of two tests at the FCC, Microsoft and the Wireless Innovation Alliance have demonstrated that unlicensed devices are not ready for prime time," stated NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton this morning. "This admission by 'white space' proponents vindicates beyond doubt the interference concerns expressed by broadcasters, sports leagues, wireless microphone companies and theater operators. Completing a successful transition to digital television ought not to be jeopardized by introducing risky technology that has proven to be unworkable."

The alliance to which Wharton referred is a coalition of manufacturers, software companies, and advocates, including Microsoft, Dell, HP, Google, and Public Knowledge, who could all stand to gain from the creation of a national standard for so-called white space devices -- wireless transmitters that detect where TV channels aren't in use, and utilize that unused space for data transmission. What the FCC wants to test is the viability of the concept: Can any device be relied upon to detect "white space" for itself?

In a statement this afternoon, the Alliance proclaimed the Microsoft test a success. But that same statement, attributed to spokesperson Brian Peters, also included some cryptic remarks that didn't appear to have much to do with the subject at hand.

"It is a shame that the NAB has resorted to scare tactics instead of the facts," Peters stated, "but perhaps that is because the facts are not on its side. Nobody is talking about wrecking Spamalot or the New York Knicks, and no one would want to. That is precisely why we have a very experienced federal agency in charge of authorizing new devices only if they meet rigorous standards of interference protection."

Peters went on to say that the UK's counterpart to the FCC has already cleared white space devices for use there, and as a result, "soccer games and the Spice Girls continue unharmed."

While one side proclaimed the tests an absolute wreck and the other side applauded its success along with that of Monty Python and an NBA team, Microsoft acknowledged one of its two prototype devices actually did fail, but not both as the NAB claimed, in a statement to BetaNews this afternoon.

"Microsoft is pleased that the FCC continues to work towards concluding its testing of white spaces devices. In support of that effort, we have provided the FCC with two test devices designed and manufactured for Microsoft by Metric Systems Corp.," the spokesperson told us.

"After continual testing, one of the two test devices experienced an apparent power issue. Testing at the FCC will continue with the primary Microsoft device and we are committed to providing the Commission with any further assistance it needs to complete testing successfully. We remain confident in the technology and look forward to the conclusion of the FCC's testing process which will expand broadband Internet access in underserved areas and enable a new wave of broadband devices and services."

Previous FCC tests of a device submitted by the White Spaces Coalition -- which Microsoft also supports -- failed last July. The Coalition and the Wireless Innovation Alliance are separate groups, and it was the FCC's test of the Coalition's submitted device that failed, not a device from the Alliance as the NAB statement had implied.

According to the FCC, the characteristics it's most interested in are the test devices' wireless microphones' capability to detect a digital television (DTV) signal under a variety of simulated real-world circumstances. Microsoft is arguing that it's not the microphones or detectors in one of its prototypes that failed, so the power failure shouldn't impact the FCC's findings.

But in stating its own rules for the test (PDF available here), the FCC gave itself lee way to evaluate other aspects of these prototypes that may be subject to failure in any given situation. "In order to prepare for field tests at events or other venues where Part 74 wireless microphones are in actual use," reads the FCC's Phase II test plan, "simulated tests will be conducted at the Laboratory facility using the available buildings and grounds. Tests will be performed in several different scenarios to obtain a sense of what to expect at 'real world' sites and to resolve any problems that are revealed that may occur at a 'real world' site."

And one such problem could be a power failure. But as a participant in the test itself told BetaNews this afternoon, the part that failed would never actually be used in a real-world white space device.

Next: What a participant in the test actually saw

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