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Wireless Update: Auctions, Frenemies and 2.4 gHz

By Bill Evans / March 19, 2014

You must be getting tired of reading about it. I know I am sick of writing about it. But we have more Fun With Wireless… Episode #I-Don’t-Know-I-Lost-Track-A-Long-Time-Ago.

By Bill Evans

OK, so where did we leave off? Oh yeah. 

1) We are GOING to lose some chunk of the 600 mHz spectrum. The question is not if it will happen. The question is how big a chunk it will be.

2) Parts of the spectrum will be auctioned off to the wireless carriers (Verizon, ATT, Sprint, et al.)

3) The status of the “set aside” frequencies that were supposed to be specifically for wireless mic users is best described as “in flux.”

So, what has changed? First, the timing. When we started talking about this in late 2012, the auction was set for sometime in 2014. We get a bit of a reprieve with the auction pushed back to an unspecified date in 2015. To be safe, figure we have a year longer until the auction occurs.  The time frame for repacking the remaining TV stations and implementing transition plans for wireless mics will be tacked onto the end of that schedule, and remains undetermined.

Second, the appetite for spectrum has increased. By a lot. And not just in licensed spectrum like the 600 band. Also in the currently unlicensed wi-fi bands. In the past month an member of the FCC has called for additional regulation of those unlicensed bands

Third. Things in the set asides are getting weird. Some of the same companies that were part of enemy forces during the initial white-space battle are nominally on our side. Emphasis on nominally. Google/Microsoft et al are pushing the FCC to keep the promised set aside frequencies set aside. Nice of them, right?

Except that,  if we do manage to hang on to the set aside frequencies, these advocates are proposing that we share that set-aside bandwidth with them. So they may be one our side today, but with conditions. At best, we are now frenemies.

And finally the big change…

As we lose bandwidth in the UHF bands, we have to start looking at other areas. It is telling that four years ago, only Line 6—widely seen as a guitar amp company even though they have done some pretty cool smaller PA stuff—was really doing wireless in the unlicensed 2.4 gHz band. It was widely seen as “not pro”. (Side note: even though it was seen by many as not pro, no less a pro light than Dave Shadoan once told me that having at least one 2.4 system on stages with a lot of wireless was a great way to avoid intermodulation issues.)

Today, with the announcement from AKG just a day or two ago, virtually every company making wireless is making either a wireless mic system or a wireless guitar-pack or both. Mark Brunner at Shure explained that the move is partly driven by a need to clear space in the increasingly crowded UHF bands. Every guitar player or local band that moves into 2.4 digital takes just a little bit of pressure off the UHF bands. I have—as a band leader and player who provides PA to myself and other local bands—personally been using 2.4 ONLY for mics and guitars for about 5 years now. And for the small stuff it works great. I have used guitar packs from Shure, AT and Line 6 and all of them work great. My personal wireless for mics is Line 6. The only UHF on a stage i do (and again, these are smaller local gigs) is a rack of in-ear transmitters/receivers. And even playing in places in Vegas where venues are literally a few yards from one another, I have never had a problem carving out enough space for my stuff. Keep an eye out here and on our sister site Live2PlayNetwork.com for reviews on the new stuff from Shure and AT in the coming weeks.

So, what does the future hold? Anyone who says they know is lying to you. Reps of all of the major mic manufacturers met and testified before the FCC again recently. That said there are a few things you can count on.

1) It’s gonna get harder to carve out wireless space and some of your 600 mHz gear may be unusable in the near future.

2) You need to start looking at the 2.4 gHz band for guitar packs and even your smaller vocal mic gigs.

3) Staying in UHF is going to get not only harder but more expensive. Stuff like Shure’s Axient Wireless Management Network which was largely conceived as something for broadcast, theatre and other large-scale productions is showing up on tours. And Axient is not for the financially faint-of-heart.

4) Every wireless purchase you make needs to be done with care and an eye to what is going to be usable as the cell carriers and tech giants continue to press for more bandwidth for consumer services.

We can bitch and moan all we want. We can take to social media and rant about how the govt is making it almost impossible to plan anything but they damn sure want their wireless mics when we do a gig for any of them.

A better path would be to start researching what it is going to take for you to get licensed. That piece of paper is going to be key to gaining immediate access to the FCC database of who is using what frequencies when and where, and reserving protected channels for your show time and location. We are likely moving towards a model that has been common in Europe for years where a tour has to get a license in advance for the bandwidth they are going to use for any gig. But, as THIS STORY by SPL’s own Jim Roese makes clear, even that will not save you in every situation.

As audio providers, most of us are smarter than the average bear and adaptable. This is one area where we are going to need to THINK and PLAN for every gig and every gear purchase we make.

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