Technology companies eager to grab vacant airwaves and use them for high-speed Internet service first have to develop a gizmo that makes the conversion possible.
They just can't seem to get it right.
Last week, a prototype device broke down again — the second time in seven months — in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission. Regulators there must be convinced that the airwaves can be used for broadband service in a way that doesn't interfere with other TV programming and wireless microphone signals.
An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
Ian Ferrell, director of wireless incubation for Microsoft Corp., one of companies developing the prototype, said the device lost power after continual testing.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Technical glitches aren't the only power issues facing the high-tech coalition, whose members also include Google Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., EarthLink Inc. and Philips Electronics North America Corp., a division of Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics NV. The coalition is in a public relations squabble with TV broadcasters, who fear such technology will interfere with their programming.
The fight over so-called "white spaces" is heating up in anticipation of the February 2009 switch from analog to digital signals.
Broadcasters quickly channeled the device's break down as evidence of interference risks. The prototype's failure was reported by a trade publication late Friday night. In a press release Monday, the National Association of Broadcasters, the main lobbying group for local TV and radio stations, said the devices "are not ready for prime time."
"This admission by 'white space' proponents vindicates beyond doubt the interference concerns expressed by broadcasters, sports leagues, wireless microphone companies and theater operators," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. "Completing a successful transition to digital television ought not to be jeopardized by introducing risky technology that has proven to be unworkable."
The FCC in late July said the coalition's first device did not reliably detect unoccupied spectrum and could interfere with other TV programming and wireless microphone signals.
In that case, Microsoft said the device was simply broken and failed to work. This time around the company said the device lost power after continual testing and insists it's not a setback.
"The power issue is unrelated to the technology points we're trying to prove," said Ferrell.
The FCC contacted the coalition Wednesday after the device lost power, but Ferrell said once the device cooled down it started to work again properly. In the meantime, the FCC began testing on a second identical device submitted by Microsoft.
Edmond Thomas, who represents the technology coalition, said there is no correlation between a test device and a final commercial product, which would address power issues.
He said NAB's comments were "absurd and extreme."
The coalition contends transmitting high-speed Internet service over unused TV airwaves, also known as "white spaces," could make it more accessible and affordable, especially in rural areas.
Any such device wouldn't be available until the country's switch to digital TV a year from now.
The FCC last month said it will conduct a second round of tests in laboratory and real-world conditions, which could take up to three months. It plans to issue a report six weeks after the testing ends.
The agency is also testing other white-space devices submitted by Motorola Inc. and Adaptrum, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup.