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How the FCC Wireless Spectrum Auction Outcome Affects Your Wireless Microphone Systems

AV integrators, event-production support vendors and manufacturers like Shure and Sennheiser prepare for a changed reality in the wake of the complex, recently completed FCC spectrum auction.

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How the FCC Wireless Spectrum Auction Outcome Affects Your Wireless Microphone Systems

About the same time that the presidency of Donald Trump began, another confusing proposition came to an end. Almost, anyway. The world’s first spectrum-incentive auction reached its virtual conclusion on Jan. 18. Under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over 70 MHz of high-value, low-band spectrum in the 600-MHz range was sold by broadcasters and bought by mobile broadband providers.

In addition, another 14 MHz of unlicensed spectrum, intended as a test bed for wireless innovation, will become available for consumer devices and other new services. The auction generated $10.05 billion to broadcast television licensees who participated, much of which, the FCC reminded, would go toward deficit reduction.

The FCC’s positive spin aside, the complex auction — it involved first a reverse auction, in which broadcasters put up for bid the amount of spectrum they were willing to part with, followed by a forward auction that saw bidders, such as mobile carriers like Verizon and AT&T, vying for it — didn’t do the numbers it was initially expected to.

The original $40.3 billion target price would have been for 108 MHz of spectrum the FCC had wanted to repackage into 80 MHz of licensed spectrum on offer to interested parties. However, it was enough to give the next iteration of wireless devices, which now includes the Internet of Things (IoT) and cellular carriers’ expected 5G wireless initiatives, the runway they need to take off.

AV integrators and live-event producers … will have to start winding down the use of their current 600-MHz wireless systems over the next couple of years and begin investing in a new generation of wireless microphone systems.

In the process, it also leaves professional wireless microphone users with considerably less of the extremely valuable 600-MHz range spectrum than they had before the auction (though more than they would have had the auction met its goals).

In other words, when the spectrum finishes its mandated 39-month reallocation process in mid-2020 (which begins after the issuance of the FCC’s channel reassignment Public Notice later this year, at which time all wireless microphone users must cease operations on the repurposed 600-MHz band), it’ll be a more constricted wireless environment — with noticeably less of the valuable and robust 600-MHz spectrum that can pass through most physical barriers — but it won’t be as bad as it could have been.

What it does is create a new landscape for wireless microphone users, including AV integrators and live-event producers who put those systems into installed and temporary applications. Those users will have to start winding down the use of their current 600-MHz wireless systems over the next couple of years and begin investing in a new generation of wireless microphone systems that will employ what little there is left of 600 as well as other areas of spectrum, such as the upper 500-MHz bands, and 1.9- (the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications [DECT] band), 2.4-and-higher-GHz ranges.

Manufacturers Are Ready

The companies that manufacture these systems, however, have been preparing for this day for nearly four years, experimenting with alternate frequency bands and the technologies they need to make them as robust and reliable as possible for their pro AV customers.

For them, the end of the auction was almost anticlimactic and long anticipated, certainly by their R&D and sales & marketing departments, which would have to develop those alternative products and convince customers — who spend upwards of $1,000 per channel for high-end wireless-microphone systems — that it was time to pull out their checkbooks again. (An earlier reallocation of spectrum, which was finalized in 2010, saw the loss of most of the 700-MHz range, part of the larger White Spaces reconfiguration of the broadcast spectrum that saw television move from analog to digital transmission.)

Joe Ciaudelli, director of spectrum affairs at Sennheiser, looked at the glass as half full, choosing to emphasize that the uncertainty of the auction process, before it was clear how much spectrum would remain and where it would be, was over with. “Of course,” he says, “our industry would prefer that the entire 600-MHz band remain available to wireless mics. However, the continued availability of lower UHF, together with the access we recently gained in several alternate frequency ranges, is the silver lining.”

Mark Brunner, vice president of corporate and government relations at Shure, was happy to move forward. “We’re relieved that the process has finished. Now we know what spectrum is off the table,” he comments. “The transition has been accomplished. Now the real work begins.”

Mark Donovan, sales engineering manager for professional products at Audio-Technica, isn’t as immediately optimistic in his assessment, however.

“We’re losing less spectrum than we expected but there will be some television channels coming down into the RF space that we will be using, at the same time that more RF users are using more wireless systems,” he says. “For instance, corporate RF users aren’t looking to use fewer channels — they’re using more channels than ever. What’s left is going to be more crowded and harder to navigate.”

Both Sennheiser and Shure had already begun marketing new wireless microphone systems to AV integrators in anticipation of the changes to come for spectrum.

For instance, by the 2016 InfoComm show, Sennheiser had already adapted its new SpeechLine Digital Wireless system for meetings to be able to operate in the 1.9-GHz frequency range.

About the same time, Shure debuted its ULX-D and QLX-D systems that are capable of operating in the 900-MHz, DECT and 2.4-GHz ranges.

Audio-Technica went a step further in its preparation for the end of the FCC auction. Last September, it announced it would establish a separate subsidiary company, Alteros, specifically tasked with developing new wireless systems in response to spectrum loss. The first product announced by the company is the GTX wireless series, which will operate in the 6.5-GHZ range and provide up to 24 channels of wireless audio without the need for frequency coordination, once it becomes available later this year.

Crowded House

Integrators and live-event production vendors will face a more complicated landscape for wireless microphones in a few years’ time as a result of this auction.

Geoff Shearing, president of Masque Sound, which provides integration services from its East Rutherford, N.J., offices for the Broadway theaters a few miles away that are part of its core client base, says he began defensive planning around RF reallocation over a year ago.

“We stopped buying anything above 608 MHz last year,” he says, referring to the new upper-end cut-off for what had been, before the auction, a usable UHF range of 470-698 MHz — a reduction of nearly 40 percent. “And we’re still waiting for the FCC to tell us where televisions stations are going to be in there.”

The new RF landscape will be so complicated that it may have the collateral effect of causing more hiring, as RF services providers and their clients add more RF spectrum coordinators and managers. Geoff Shearing, Masque Sound

Shearing says the purchasing strategy now is for frequency-agile wireless products whose performance will better suit the less predictable new ranges of 900 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.4 GHz. It also seeks products that offer more remote-control options, such as the ability to turn transmitters on and off remotely, which will help conserve both battery life and spectrum, as RF channels close together can be better managed during events and shoots.

In fact, he says, the new RF landscape will be so complicated that it may have the collateral effect of causing more hiring, as RF services providers and their clients add more RF spectrum coordinators and managers. “I’m telling everyone that they’re just going to have to learn more about RF in general,” he says.

Curious Phrasing Used

Broadcasters and motion picture and television program production entities are already eligible to use TV-band spectrum, subject to certain restrictions and regulations.

However, the FCC has expanded eligibility for wireless microphone licenses by adding two new categories of entities: “large venue owner or operator” and “professional sound company.”

To be eligible for a license under these new categories, a large venue owner or operator and a professional sound company must routinely use 50 or more wireless microphones or other devices, such as wireless intercom and IFB, and the use of those devices must be “an integral part of major events or productions.”

“Routinely use” is bureaucratically vague, subject to interpretation and may end up in a court case or three along the way as new regulations bump into the real world. The FCC defines it to mean that “the venue owner or operator uses 50 or more such devices for most events or productions.”

Sennheiser’s Ciaudelli views the 50-microphone dictum as an arbitrary but not necessarily unreasonable line in the sand to define a professional user.

“‘Routinely’ is the key word there and it may take a lawyer to interpret it in some cases,” he cautions. “If you’re using wireless microphones for an event, [the event producer] can ride on the rental company’s license to operate the wireless systems. If a wireless system is being installed in a fixed installation, that may be open to interpretation; a theater is likely not a problem, since they routinely use a lot of wireless microphones, but a corporate auditorium might be.”

Those companies that do operate the minimum number of wireless microphone channels will be able to protect their operation — and by extension, the operations of their rental clients — by registering their operating locations, channels and times in the white-spaces database, and receive protection from unlicensed TV band devices. Parties operating large numbers of wireless microphones on an unlicensed basis will also be allowed to register their operations for protection through the database under certain circumstances.

The FCC currently designates two unused TV channels, where available, for wireless microphone operations and where they are not made available for unlicensed TV band devices. Following the incentive auction, these two channels will no longer be designated exclusively for wireless microphones following the repacking of the TV bands.

Also, the FCC is examining database registration procedures, and has proposed to eliminate the rule that permits unlicensed wireless microphone users to register their operations in the white spaces database.

The FCC is also considering other ways that unlicensed wireless microphones would operate on an equal basis with white space devices in the TV bands, the 600-MHz guard bands, and the portion of the duplex gap where unlicensed operations are allowed.

“We’re relieved the process has finished. Now we know what spectrum is off the table. The transition has been accomplished. Now the real work begins.” Mark Brunner, Shure

“That’s where much of the ‘middle class’ of wireless users live,” says Ciaudelli, which will include small and mid-sized AV rental companies that will support them. They will have to purchase wireless equipment that is certified for operation in the duplex and lower guard bands. And while some existing equipment may already be capable of operating in these bandwidths, they may also exceed the 20-milliwatt output-power limit that unlicensed wireless mics will be constrained by when operating in the guard band or duplex gap.

Those who do work in those areas of spectrum will need to take additional care not to let their emissions spill over into the now-restricted 600-MHz range; this will include much more precise choices of antennas and antenna placement of orientation, Ciaudelli warns.

Impact on Integrators

Nick Wood, category director for wireless products at Shure, says installed-systems providers will be able to expect the same level of performance from new wireless microphone products that are being adapted to the new spectral realities from major manufacturers. “The tools are still going to be with the same sound quality and predictability to access other frequencies, like 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz,” he says.

Shure’s Brunner, the company’s point person on spectrum reallocation, points out that integrators in different cities and regions will experience the reallocation process in different ways.

“The telecom operators who bought this spectrum are not likely, post auction, to move into the spectrum in every market right away,” he explains. “Unlike the last time this happened, with the 700-MHz band after the DTV transition, which had a solid date by which previous users had to cease operations there, this time we will have a 39-month period during which the transition will take place. The new users will be firing up their operations at different times in different places. Integrators will need to know what’s happening and when, in order to extract the most return from their existing equipment.”

That information will be available — at least theoretically — from the geolocation databases already in place, a useful remnant of the previous spectral displacement. Alternately, the FCC could publish that information on its own website.

Brunner says the FCC hasn’t made it clear yet how notifications will take place. What he is more certain about, though, is that despite a new administration and, closer to home, new FCC leadership — President Trump named Ajit Pai, the senior Republican commissioner at the FCC, as its head in January — the spectrum real-location process will remain insulated from political partisanship. Wood says integrators will have to educate themselves and spend time learning which new wireless solutions will work best in various environments.

For instance, he says, DECT spectrum is efficient and away from many other consumer mobile applications, but could be vulnerable to the kinds of phone systems commonly used in corporate installations. The 2.4-GHz range depends to some extent on its signals being reflected off of hard surfaces to maximize propagation, which could make it less effective in outdoor applications unless more antennas are deployed.

The revamped wireless landscape will be challenging at first for AV integrators and their clients. The best RF real estate for their purposes also happens to be the best for mobile operators, as well, and momentum has been on their side in recent years. The AV industry is nothing if not resourceful, but it will need all of those resources to successfully navigate this transition.