By Steve Harvey
Los Angeles, CA (December 1, 2006)--Telecommunication reform legislation before the House will enable the use of unlicensed wireless devices in the 'white space' unoccupied by the terrestrial TV frequency spectrum, creating a very real threat of interference to any broadcast audio production utilizing RF microphones, as well as in-ear, intercom or IFB systems. The Communications, Consumer Choice and Broadband Deployment bill allows phone companies into the cable TV business, authorizes the FCC to ensure net neutrality and will govern municipal broadband networks.
'White space' is a misnomer, since those frequencies are the very area in which UHF wireless audio equipment operates, albeit at low power. But, with potential for unlicensed consumer wireless internet, home network and entertainment devices to crowd those bands, audio production may be in trouble.
According to Uwe Sattler, Sennheiser's technical director, the bill "will cause collapse and cessation of the operation of Experimental Radio, Auxiliary, Special Broadcast and Other Program Distributional Services currently governed and protected by Part 74 of the FCC rules and regulations [licensing broadcast RF equipment]. This ruling will all but make it impossible to provide the current audio production practices and standards for a large variety of events: program production for film, theater and television, sports events, news coverage and gathering, political conventions, corporate meetings, public meetings, worship services, general entertainment and concerts, to name just a few."
Sattler is pessimistic about finding a technological workaround if the bill passes, which seems likely with some of the nation's largest telecomm companies, eager to offer their own services in the unused spectrum, lobbying for that airspace. "Our industry has been able to cope with the changes imposed by the curtailment of available frequency spectrum during the transition to advanced-digital-television and reallocation of over 100 MHz to emergency radio and private land mobile services," he observes. But with unlicensed-and by their nature unpredictable-devices jamming the airwaves, he says, "No real technical solutions to cope with the inevitable interference are currently known. Certain is only a future with a considerably higher noise floor and, if any, far fewer usable frequencies. Unless currently unknown new physical principles are discovered, reliance on technical solutions is misguided, and at best is wishful thinking for the future."
Karl Winkler, director of business development at Lectrosonics, Inc., is rather more hopeful: "Current technology actually does have one advantage: the FM capture effect. Such unlicensed devices would all be digital modulation, which looks like noise to an FM device. Thus, if the [relatively low power] digital sources are far enough away, the noise level will not be much of a concern." But, he agrees with Sattler, the sheer quantity of consumer devices in the UHF spectrum could raise the noise floor and reduce the number of audio devices that could otherwise be operated.
Lectrosonics is investigating potential solutions, Winkler says. "We are currently looking at FM-based devices using our Digital Hybrid Wireless platform that will be above the standard UHF range. Also, we've had requests for Hybrid, frequency agile systems in the VHF band. In addition, there is brand-new technology being developed in our engineering department that should help our customers address this problem in a very unique way."
Meanwhile, both companies, along with others in the pro audio industry, are busy lobbying lawmakers to make them aware that Part 74 devices already occupy the so-called 'white space' and alert them to the impact of the bill. "We've been involved with the Sports Video Group and they have done some lobbying on behalf of the wireless manufacturers. Also, we've added some comments in support of Shure's reports to the FCC," Winkler reports.
Sennheiser Electronic Corporation is also an active member of the Sports Video Group, which was formed last year to support the professional community relying on video, audio and broadband technologies to produce and distribute sports content. Additionally, says Sattler, SEC is lobbying with PAMA (Professional Audio Manufacturers Association), the AES and other industry organizations with a vested interest in this topic.
Whether the bill will pass in its current or an amended form is difficult to predict, says Winkler. The telecomm giants may be pushing for their chunk of the spectrum, but does the public really want their proposed services? "I don't really see that consumers are particularly asking for it. I suppose this could change, but I do think that the market will be slow to respond to such offerings, just as they have been with satellite radio, surround sound, et cetera. Time will tell."
Sattler, conversely, believes it's almost a foregone conclusion: "The FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology has all but laid out a time line for implementation, even though a vote has yet to be taken in the political forum." And, he warns, "We do see fairly clearly the results if this proposal if passed in its present form."
By Steve Harvey