The War Over White Spaces

It’s Broadway microphones vs. Internet providers

Volume CVIII, No. 12December, 2008

Mikael Elsila

It’s every actor’s nightmare. Imagine you’re watching a Broadway musical and suddenly you start hearing noise through the actor’s microphone — or the mike quits working altogether. Suddenly the spell is broken and the play is ruined for the audience. That scenario could be more and more frequent in the near future. It all comes down to something called “white spaces.”

What are white spaces? They are the gaps in the radio spectrum that are empty, like the silence between radio channels.

Next year, a coalition of companies — including Microsoft and Google — wants to deliver high speed Internet access through the white space continuum.

There’s just one problem. The white spaces are already being used on Broadway and in other theatre environments for wireless microphones.

Proponents argue that new white spaces technology can detect when others are using the same spectrum to avoid interference. But others — including Local 802 — are skeptical.

Local 802 president Mary Landolfi recently testified before a New York City Council technology committee, arguing that any new use of white spaces must not interfere with Broadway.

“The economic effect of any reduction of audience enjoyment of live performance is potentially devastating,” Landolfi told the committee.

Local 802 and Broadway producers were dealt a blow on on Nov. 4, when the FCC voted to auction off white spaces to the tech companies. However, the future is still uncertain. When the new Obama administration takes office, the FCC may change course. The war over white spaces is not over yet.