Engineering innovation enabling new technologies or intolerable broadcast interference: These opposing concepts framed the debate over the Federal Communications Commission's proposal last year to open up the unused "white spaces" in the communications spectrum to unlicensed wireless devices.
The FCC proposal, which was ultimately approved, sparked a heated debate between wireless innovators such as Microsoft, Google, and Motorola, and the National Association of Broadcasters, which vigorously fought against any encroachment on the spectrum.
Students in CU-Boulder's Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program argued both sides of the question in the ITP Fall Challenge, held Nov. 15.
"We were assigned to argue the point of view of the broadcasters," says engineering student Colleen Seltz, whose team including students Jamie Guthridge, Ankur Agarwal, and Robert Houston ultimately won first place and $500 in the challenge. "It was kind of ironic because none of us was in agreement with the broadcasters at all."
"But the challenge was really fun and definitely worth doing," Seltz says. "It gave us an opportunity to use our presentation skills and be in front of real companies that are hiring or have hired ITP graduates in the past."
Fifteen student teams signed up to compete in the event, which allowed students only about 10 days to conduct their research, write a paper, and prepare their presentation. Coaching was available from adjunct professor Dale Hatfield, former chief engineer of the FCC, and Jeff Battin of Perficient, an IT consulting firm that co-sponsored the event.
Participating teams were evaluated on their overall command of the subject, according to ITP Instructor Jill Van Matre. "The best teams understand everything about the other side, in addition to the one they are arguing," she says.
Indeed. Guthridge and Agarwal were especially knowledgeable about the "white spaces" issue and felt strongly that the emergence of new technologies depends on access to the spectrum, mentioning garage door openers and home wireless routers as examples from the past. But after arguing the broadcasters' side in the challenge, they say they came around to at least understand their point.
"It's their livelihood and they're desperate to protect it," Guthridge says, adding that a large number of Americans rely on over-the-air broadcast signals as their only television. "It's only 15 percent, but it equates to 45 million people," he says.