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FCC Changes Spark Wireless Mic Evolution

By Glenn Greenberg. On July 13, 2020, wireless mics will no longer be allowed to operate in the 600 MHz service band. Manufacturers have been preparing for this transition for years; their goal now is to help their customers get ready.

For wireless microphone users, July 13, 2020, will mark the end of an era. On that date, by order of the Federal Communications Commission, wireless mics will no longer be allowed to operate in the 600 MHz service band. As manufacturers brace themselves for the change, they are offering advice on how to best use current technology—and urging users not to wait until the last minute to get on the bandwagon.

“We’ve known about this transition for years,” says Karl Winkler, vice president of sales and service for Lectrosonics. “We’ve been investing a lot of R&D into product development, new products and updates to older products. There are new products in the UHF range and some in alternate frequency bands.”

Joe Ciaudelli, director of spectrum affairs for Sennheiser Innovation & Research, believes his company is prepared. “I think we’re poised well to evolve and provide equipment for the new RF landscape,” he says. “My deeper concern is the understanding of a lot of end users.”

One potential issue, according to Ciaudelli, is the belief among many users that the current transition is like the one that happened in 2010, when wireless audio equipment was moved out of the 700 MHz band. “In 2010, there was a specific deadline,” he says. “The day before, we had one channel configuration, and then the day after, it was clear what [the configuration was]. Whereas this is going to be a 10-phase transition over the next three years.”

Ciaudelli says he is aware of a misconception among many people that they have until the end of that 10-phase transition, which falls on July 13, 2020, to get with the program. “They think, ‘Okay, I have till then, and all my existing equipment will work as is, and I have years to figure this out,’” he says. “They really don’t. July 13, 2020, is the final deadline before the new regulations for wireless microphone equipment come into play.”

When a mobile broadband carrier that has purchased a license for some of the 600 MHz spectrum begins service on those frequencies, wireless mics must leave—and in some cases, that is happening much sooner than the general deadline.

“The big winner of the 600 MHz auction was T-Mobile, primarily,” according to Mark Brunner, vice president of global corporate and government relations at Shure. “And T-Mobile has put together quite an aggressive schedule to try to move into the newly-purchased auction spectrum, and that is riding alongside the 10-phase plan by the FCC to transition the broadcasters to their new channel assignments, which are further down on the UHF TV band.”

Ciaudelli says the key point for users is that they should not wait three years to transition. “They should do it now,” he says.

Brunner advises users that if they have wireless mics with the ability to tune above 614 MHz, those systems are at risk. “It’s important to know what channels will be available, so look at what the final TV map is going to look like at the end of the transition when making purchasing decisions for replacing equipment,” he says.

Winkler says that Lectrosonics, Sennheiser, Shure, Audio-Technica and other manufacturers have “stepped up” by offering rebate and trade-in programs for users with gear that needs to be replaced. “Unfortunately, unlike some other countries, our pro audio industry and the users and owners of wireless microphones are not receiving any of the proceeds from the [FCC] auctions,” he explains. “The users and the manufacturers have to bear the costs of the transition. It was the same in 2010.” Through the rebate and trade-in programs, Winkler says, the manufacturers and users share the costs.

Naturally, manufacturers are developing new equipment to support the transition. Several products are available now. Lectrosonics introduced its Duet wireless monitor system last year. Shure offers the Axient Digital system, as well as the ULX-D and QLX-D systems. Sennheiser has its recently updated Digital 6000 system, and its SK 5212 bodypack transmitter, SKM 52000 handheld transmitter and EM 3732-II receiver were produced to work within ranges that have been opened up to wireless microphones, specifically 941.5 to 960 MHz.

Related: T-Mobile 600 MHz Game Plan Gets Aggressive, by Steve Harvey, Pro Sound News, March 20, 2018

Ciaudelli say the 941.5 to 960 range is particularly good for licensed operators who have used all the available UHF TV spectrum within their area. “They’re losing some channels up in the 600 MHz range, but this is a great alternative,” he says.

Winkler also notes the overcrowding of the standard UHF band that the industry has used for decades. Years ago, he explains, VHF was relatively crowded and UHF was relatively open. Now the reverse is true. “The issue is the pressure to keep wireless channels working and do the kinds of productions that we see today, that are very wireless-heavy,” he says. “We’ve got to find spectrum somewhere. Now VHF looks more attractive again because there’s some spectrum left there.”

Brunner agrees. “VHF—the low portion of the TV band—is in vogue again,” he says. “There are open channels down there. [Shure] is offering a lot of our higher-tier product line in VHF, as well.”

However, Ciaudelli advises users that, for now, they should stick with the UHF TV band. “It’s still a great place to operate wireless mics if there are available channels,” he says. “Use them!”

According to Brunner, UHF is still preferred by the touring and broadcast industries. “UHF is kind of a sweet spot for the range of the signal and the ability to have known interference-free blocks, meaning vacant TV channels,” he says. “The goal is to keep UHF for the high-money applications, because that’s what pros need to do their productions successfully.”

Within the next couple of years, Ciaudelli says, users will also see equipment for the 1,435 to 1,525 MHz band: “That band is designed for power users—audio engineers who are staging mega-events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.” In the past, wireless mic operators had to request special authorization from the FCC to use that band for such “mega-events.” Now, approvals are overseen by the Aerospace & Flight Test Radio Coordinating Council (AFTRCC), a not-for-profit organization of radio frequency management representatives from major aerospace companies. According to its website, AFTRCC is the only organization dedicated to protecting radio frequencies for aerospace test and evaluation.

Related: Sennheiser Sets 600 MHz Trade-In Program, Pro Sound News, Aug. 4, 2017

“The 1,435 to 1,525 MHz band is used for flight training, so access to the band [for wireless mic operators] needs to be coordinated,” Ciaudelli says.

For users who think they won’t get caught if they keep operating wireless mics, in-ear monitors and other devices in the 600 MHz range—think again.

Ciaudelli says it’s unlikely that the FCC itself will actively police the frequencies, but the companies that paid to use the spectrum most certainly will. “If they find something that’s using the spectrum that they paid billions of dollars for, they’re likely to pick up the phone and call the FCC. And the FCC is obligated to respond,” he says.

Users who continue to operate on the frequencies after they’ve been warned to stop doing so may be subject to hefty fines. Citing the new regulations, Brunner says, “It is the obligation of the wireless microphone operator not to interfere with licensed services once they go on the air. ‘Licensed services’ in these cases would be referring to the mobile broadband providers.” So how can a user know whether T-Mobile has lit up in his or her area? “Fortunately,” Brunner says, “most of today’s modern wireless systems have a scan function to help people find a clear channel. We advise people to scan early and often.”

Winkler says the most likely scenario for users is that their systems just won’t work anymore “because there’s a new data service transmission on your frequency. T-Mobile is turning on services now in the United States and testing and putting out their schedules.”

Which raises the question of whether manufacturers and end users will face the same situation in the future, with similar FCC auctions limiting even more spectrum and rendering equipment useless within just a few years. “That is always a specter hanging over us, and I think it’s very difficult to look past a five-year horizon anymore,” Winkler says.

“There are no long-term guarantees,” Brunner acknowledges. “However, it’s probably more likely that future spectrum for mobile broadband will be outside of the TV band. This industry has now undergone two pretty big transitions of TV spectrum, and it’s likely to stay stable for the next several years.”

Ciaudelli agrees. “I cannot see any major reallocation of the remaining UHF TV band for at least a decade,” he says. “We have to keep in mind that this 600 MHz auction was successful, but it did not generate as much demand—and it did not repurpose as much spectrum—as the FCC tried to do.”

Ciaudelli notes that Europe and the rest of the world are not planning to reallocate and repurpose the 600 MHz range. “North America tried to push it to the rest of the world at the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2015, and the rest of the world flatly rejected it,” he says. “They’ll discuss it again at the WRC in 2023, but even if anything is acted upon there, nothing will really happen until 2027. So for the next 10 years, we know the rest of the world isn’t going to reallocate the 600 MHz band.”

But while the auction is over, Ciaudelli stresses that an important issue is still pending involving what is called the Reserved Channel Proceeding. It proposes the reservation of one vacant UHF TV channel in every geographic area of the country for use by unlicensed wireless microphones and white space devices.

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“Licensed mic operators could reserve the channel during the times of their productions,” Ciaudelli explains. “It would basically be an oasis, a safe harbor, for wireless microphones to operate in. The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking—this was a few years ago [2015]—and they have yet to make a final ruling on that. Now we’re under new leadership and they may not appreciate the importance of ratifying this rulemaking that was initiated by the former FCC leadership. So I highly encourage readers to write to the FCC and to reinforce that the FCC should ratify it.”

Lectrosonics •

Sennheiser •

Shure •