We are revisiting this because there is some new news about the future of the 600 mHz band and wireless mics and monitors. The following piece by Shure’s Mark Brunner–written about a year ago–hinted at what might come and it is now official.
This week, the FCC adopted rules for use by unlicensed devices in what will be left open in the 600 mHz band after the spectrum auction happens sometime next year. In case you are unclear, “unlicensed” devices includes better than 80% of the the wireless mic and monitor systems in use today by venues, houses o worship, touring bands and regional and local sound companies. if you want to see the actual legal document, you can download it here for the next couple of weeks. But to sum it up…
We (as in users of wireless mics and monitors) will get to use SOME of the 600 mHz band. But it is a much smaller portion than we are using today and we are gonna have to share with coming “white space” devices. You remember those, right? We have been talking about them for nearly a decade. Suffice to say that they will probably be or a t least resemble the smartphones and wireless tablets being used today. But they will send and receive in the same space as your wireless mics.
Interesting times, indeed…
BY MARK BRUNNER
There is considerable angst and speculation in pro audio over the fact that the FCC plans to auction portions of the 600 MHz UHF Band in 2015 and “repack” the remaining digital TV stations into the lower frequencies. After auction of the 700 MHz Band in 2010 as a result of the DTV transition, it’s easy to leap to judgment that wireless microphones are losing ground in the increasingly crowded competition for RF spectrum. But as the table of allocations at the FCC continues to evolve, so do the awareness, policy, and technologies of wireless pro audio which, when viewed collectively, can make the glass look more like half full.
Because the FCC is at the center of the conversation, the casual observer may mistakenly believe that moving the pro audio cheese is their idea alone. The reality is that both the DTV transition and the pending “Incentive Auction” resulted from acts of Congress, which some time ago connected the dots in determining that spectrum policy could be fiscal policy, particularly as the mobile broadband revolution began to unfold and then skyrocket.
The 600 MHz Incentive Auction is mandated by law as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Broadcasters are being offered a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to relinquish and/or share their spectrum voluntarily, which will be auctioned to the large telecom companies (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, et al.). Proceeds will go to both the participating broadcasters and to the federal government for various programs.
As a result, wireless mics will eventually be ordered to vacate portions of the 600 MHz range. The current plan calls for an auction in “mid 2015” followed by a 39 month transition period to repack the DTV stations. During that time, the FCC will finalize plans to accommodate wireless microphones in the new, repacked spectrum. Until the auction winners commence service, the current status quo prevails.
The good news is that, per a recent Report & Order, the FCC acknowledges wireless microphones – including microphone, instrument, in-ear monitor, and intercom systems – as an important user class that will have to be accommodated in the new spectrum allocations, both in the UHF TV Band and elsewhere.
For instance, we already know that post-auction there will be one dedicated TV channel (down from two), plus spaces in the 600 MHz guard bands and duplex gap for shared used by wireless microphones and TV band devices (TVBDs, also called “white space devices”). More importantly, the FCC has committed to finding additional spectrum space outside the TV Band for future wireless mic operation. So while we will see reductions in the 600 MHz band, there are significant efforts underway to find alternatives for wireless mics.
Perhaps even more significantly, the FCC is expanding access to licensing, and to the protection from TVBDs via the national geolocation database system. Part 74 licensing, since 1979 restricted to broadcasters, cable operators and movie producers, is now – yes, now – available to any sound company, production company, or venue that routinely operates 50 channels or more. Licensees’ channel usage and location can be registered in the database, and white space TVBDs will be unable to transmit (and thus cause interference) on those channels for the specified time period.
For smaller operators who are unlicensed, the FCC has enabled protection of specific events under Part 15. Although this process is less streamlined, it does allow users to reserve open TV channels and avoid interference from TVBDs at the time and location specified. This system requires a 30-day advance request to the FCC, and therefore is appropriate for recurring events like theatrical productions and house of worship services using under 50 channels, as well as any one-off event that is known more than a month out.
Meanwhile, what’s a wireless mic operator to do?
Obviously, no one wants to see a prized and expensive piece of gear get retired early. We’ve been down that road, and it can be bumpy. But at least we have advance warning.
Over the next four years or so, pro audio users should consider phasing out aging 600 MHz wireless equipment. Exactly where the guard bands around the newly auctioned spectrum will fall will not be clear until the auction is complete, however, so some 600 MHz systems will be operational even after the telecoms move in. When purchasing new wireless systems, it would be wise to consider all alternatives until the new spectrum is fully defined.
Fortunately, there are more choices than ever. In the wake of the 2010 White Spaces proceedings, many wireless manufacturers have developed new digital architectures to expand their offerings into other ranges, such as 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz. While these are shared frequencies with common technologies like Wi-Fi, they do represent a viable alternative for many applications.
In addition, higher tier systems are incorporating significant technological advances to improve channel count (the number of systems one can deploy in a certain amount of spectrum). A setup that may have required multiple 6 MHz TV channels of spectrum a few years ago can today be accommodated in one.
Meanwhile, wireless manufacturers continue to represent the interests of pro audio users, large and small, before the FCC. We testify, we lobby, and we participate in all aspects of the commission’s process.
Over the past 10-15 years, we have raised the profile of wireless microphone users significantly. For decades, wireless microphones operated behind the scenes without causing interference or receiving it, working in harmony with TV stations that left large spaces in between for pro audio operations. Today, we are competing with telecom, computer, and consumer electronics giants, all demanding a bigger slice of the wireless pie. Yet the FCC now acknowledges that ours is a very important user community — deserving of allocation and protection – despite the enormous pressures it faces to regulate the new exploding wireless ecosystem.
So while we will be seeing changes to the 600 MHz UHF Band in the coming years, take heart. Life will go on, and professional wireless systems will be an important part of it. Stay tuned.
Mark Brunner is Sr. Director, Global Brand Management for Shure Inc.