So the FCC is auctioning off bandwidth that we count on for wireless mics, IEMs and comm. Before you tune out thinking that it’s old news, think twice. It’s happening again…


Back in October of last year, at the AES show in San Francisco, I ran into Mark Brunner from Shure. He told me there were new issues afoot and i mentioned it in our AES coverage. But i hate to admit that it took an article in the New York Times that got some of y’all chattering on FaceBook to get me to do an update.


So, to review, it was probably five years ago that i first started covering this. And about that long since I went to Washington D.C. along with Mark Dennis from Cirque and Scott Harmala from ATK to talk with legislatiors and that was the beginning of my education on all of this and probably a key to my distaste for government. The issues then and now were pretty much the same–money and something called “wireless white space.” But there are key differences (more on that later).


For those who have not been paying attention, “white space” is the PR spin term that wireless service providers and consumer electronics manufacturers coined very early in the debate to describe the bandwidth in the UHF spectrum that existed “in between” established TV channels. The space for a UHF TV channel is 6 mHz wide. For example: channel 38 is mapped for the space between 614 and 620 mHz; channel 39 is mapped for 620-626 mHz. But there are not stations broadcasting on every defined channel in every part of the country and the bandwidth defined for a channel includes some buffer space. This was called “white space” by wireless and CE compnaies specifically because it made it seem like this was empty, unused bandwidth. What they left out was that these slivers of unused space are what the audio and production industries use for wireless mics and other wireless devices. 


That is a massive over-simplification, but there is a lot of info out there that goes deeper. And that part of the fight is over. Let’s focus on the money part of the equation for a moment. This is a two-front war. On the industry front, They have moeny to spend and are willing to spend it because there is a ton of money to be made. It is not just about companies that make devices or sell wireless services. It is also about companies that make billions of dollars every year selling online advertising. The more people are connected to mobile devices–and the wireless Internet service that both supports and drives them–the more eyeballs they can sell to advertisers. The practical result of this was an unholy alliance of consumer electronics companies including HP and Dell joined by software giants like Microsoft, and online portals including Google and Yahoo. And that was just one front. The other was a government with an insatiable appetite for cash to fund programs and political careers.


We never had a chance.


After a couple years of hearings and pretending the decision was not a done deal from the very beginning, the FCC opened the “white space” above about 600 mHz to auction and closed it to wireless mic usage. Selling unlicensed wireless devices operating in those ranges is illegal. Operating them is illegal. It is even illegal for a manufacturer to repair a unit operationg in that range that was made and sold legally before the ban.


This meant a couple of things. First, the “700 range” was seen as the “pro” part of the spectrum by many and it was less populated than bandwidth further down the spectrum. So a lot of companies and productions had invested heavily in gear operating in that range and it all had to be replaced. (Hint: if you have not replaced it yet, you have probably waited too long.) Some large productions spent hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing wireless gear that was just a year or two old. 


Second, it meant that all of the shows using wireless operating above 680 mHz had to migrate into the 470 mHz-680 mHz range. That range was more crowded to begin with and the migration just made it worse. The audio industry was thrown a bone. Channel 37 has never been allocated to any television station. It’s reserved for radio and medical telemetry reserved the two “channels” closest to 37 and unused in each market to wireless mics, IEMs etc. In some larkets that may mean 35 and 36. In some 36 and 38. It all depends on what bandwidth is being used for TV in any given market.


I’m sure i am not the only one, but i sold a lot of wireless. Stuff above 680 I sold to users in Europe. But that was only a couple of pieces. The rest were legal but not in the “safe” range for Las Vegas. So I sold it all and replaced it with “safe” units. Thoise of us who did that may have acted too quickly.


That brings us to where we are right now. And it’s a little confusing and more intense than it was just a few years ago. The common thread is the money. But this time the driver is less industry and more government.


The last half decade has seen both the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious debate about the roie of government and how to fund programs and who should pay for what. We have seen bitter debates about tax rates and budget cuts versus “revenue enhancments.” With deficits at historically high levels and an economic recovery that is weak at best, the federal gonernment is reaching for every dime of revenue it can get without angering large parts of the the electorate on one hand or powerful financial and political interests on the other. And auctioning off bandwidth to wireless service providers is an effective way to do that.


In fact, the government is actually working to CREATE white space to auction off. You heard that right. Government reps are actually going to small TV stations and negotiating with them to “find their price” to voluntarily either cease broadcasting or migrate into bandwith spoken for by another broadcaster but not being used.


And those “safe” frequencies arounf Channel 37? They may not be safe for long. Given the current desperation for revenue and the high prices service providers are willing to pay for bandwidth, well, you do the math.


We have been saying this from the beginning. The audio and production industry is NOT going to win here. There is too much money at stake and to many powerful interests lined up against us. Some estimates have put the value of bandwidth that can potentially be auctioned at upwards of $240 billion.


The solutions will end up being tech and not political. When this was all starting, only a couple of companies (Line 6 and Lectrosonics come to mind) making wireless mikes trasmitting a digital datastream instead of analog audio. And Line 6 was out of the UHF space all together. Just a couple of years later, all of the major wireless mic players are doing digital and non-UHF. And systems like Shure’s Axient are using huge amounts of data processing horsepower to make the best possible use of shrinking amounts of available UHF bandwidth.


We don’t have answers or even a solid prediction on where this is going to go and how quickly. But we do feel pretty safe with a couple of assumptions. 


1) In a fight with the government over money, whoever is on the side that is not the government loses. Always.


2) If you use a lot of wireless on your shows, you need to have a plan for a wired backup and be ready to use it.


3) This ain’t over. And it is probably going to get worse. A lot worse.