A few weeks ago, Mark Brunner from Shure hosted a bunch of media types on a conference call to give us an update on what’s going on. Keep in mind that Mark is much nicer and more diplomatic than I am. These are my words, not his.
Let’s start with the easy part. Government sucks. Ok, now come the details.
It Is Not About 700 MHz Anymore
That battle is over and lost. If you are still using wireless mics or monitors operating in the 700 MHz range in the U.S. then you are operating illegally. If it has not become an issue, it will. The wireless carriers that bought up the spectrum have been issuing cease and desist letters.
The current issue is, of course, all about government revenue and tied up in an auction system.
In a piece of legislation passed in the wake of the financial meltdown called the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress instructed the FCC to explore if UHF TV broadcast license holders would be willing to vacate their spectrum and, if so, how much would they accept to compensate them for vacating.
Basically, the FCC has been told to go to the over-the-air broadcast community and ask them how much they would need to either close up shop or to share their TV channel with another local license holder (up to six Standard Definition digital TV signals can fit in one 6 MHz channel). Under the plan, license holders willing to vacate can set a minimum price and
the FCC will hold an auction and if a wireless carrier is willing to pay more than the minimum auction price, they can get that spectrum. Anything over the auction reserve goes to, you guessed it, the federal govt.
So, there is a lot up in the air here and many unanswered questions.
1) How many license holders will be interested in taking the money and running?
2) How different will the situation be in different locales?
3) How soon will the auctions begin?
4) Will the carriers be willing to pay what the license holders want?
The answers to those four questions may go far in answering how badly we are gonna get squeezed. Especially questions 1 and 4. If license holders are not willing to vacate or the wireless carriers are not willing to pay their asking price the issue may well be moot. But I would not count on it. As mobile Internet access becomes an ever more entwined part of the culture, carriers are desperate for bandwidth. They will pay. And if the price tag is high enough, someone will sell. Basic economics.
How soon? Probably sooner than we would like. With the FCC chair and two commissioners leaving late last year, it probably bought us a little time but that is running out. Current plans call for the auctions to start in 2014. Which, if you have not noticed, is not that far off.
The big crapshoot question is how will it affect different locals. This is especially daunting for those of you who tour for a living. Local and regional companies WILL be affected. But once they know the new landscape, they can adjust. But the touring tribe? You could be in a city one day where none of the current license holders sold off spectrum and tomorrow be in a place where, say, 30% of them did. Think wrangling frequencies is hard now? Just wait.
Will the Gov’t Reneg? Is the Pope Catholic?
You may remember that when we lost 700, we were promised two open TV channels in every market, assigned as close as possible above and below TV channel 37.. The exact frequencies depended on the locale but we were promised at least those. Cold comfort to those of you running a dozen stereo in-ears and as many wireless mics, but it was at least something.
But there is no solid answer on if that promised set aside will stay in place. Let’s say, just for grins that in a major metropolitan area, the FCC has two license holders agree to an auction. But the guy in between them in terms of spectrum wants to retain his license. But if that spectrum can be cleared, then someone like Verizon is willing to lay down a couple of billion bucks for the whole big slice. Now, let’s speculate and say that the FCC could move that one holdout into another part of the spectrum to free up the consolidated slice that Verizon wants. But the only other spectrum available in that locale is in the promised set aside. Any guesses on the outcome?
This is where Rep. Bobby Rush comes in. Lord knows I am no fan of politicians, but Rush, an Illinois congressman with close ties to the house of worship community and other pro audio interests, has been the most vocal friend the production community has had in this battle from the beginning. Rep. Rush has introduced a bill that would, among other things, mandate that the promised set aside frequencies be kept set aside.
You need to keep an eye on this. Yes it is complicated and boring. But it affects our ability to do our jobs in pretty fundamental ways. We will keep all y’all updated and let you know when and if you need to start calling and emailing your local congressional reps. If you want to get a jump on that, there are links to Rush’s proposed legislation and a tool to find contact info for your representatives below.