The FCC And Pro Wireless: Are we there yet?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has had regulatory oversight of wireless microphones since rules were established for their operation in the 1970s. As technology advances and an ever-growing diversity of applications for wireless products, both inside our industry and outside it, continues its explosive growth, the FCC has recognized the need to update certain regulations for wireless microphones and factor their use into its long-range planning for allocation of the increasingly crowded RF spectrum.

Wireless users have been somewhat invisible citizens for many years, and with good reason. With operation permitted in unoccupied TV channels on a secondary basis to over-the-air broadcast, wireless microphone operations steadily grew over the years without incidence of interference to the primary service, and large-scale users cooperatively coordinated their frequencies onsite to enable peaceful coexistence.

The transition to digital broadcast (DTV) facilitated a closer packing of TV stations, enabling a lucrative auction of the 700MHz UHF Band to the nation’s telecom companies for their exclusive, licensed use. This, combined with the 2010 White Spaces ruling, which opened the fewer remaining unoccupied TV channels to shared use with new unlicensed devices (TV Band Devices, or TVBDs), led to wireless microphone operators beginning to feel the squeeze.

The FCC recognized that wireless microphone systems required dedicated spectrum space and, as a result, allocated two TV channels in every location for their exclusive use. In addition, large operations were allowed priority “reservation” of additional unoccupied TV channels at specific times and locations through a newly developed nationwide geolocation database designed to govern the transmissions of future TVBDs.

In 2010, it seemed that a careful balance had been struck in the UHF Band. The exponential growth of smartphones and tablets, however, has again spurred action by Congress to mandate further FCC action to auction more UHF spectrum for licensed mobile broadband services, while still retaining spectrum for unlicensed TVBDs. As a result, professional audio operations will experience further changes in the coming years, but the ongoing march of the global wireless ecosystem—and a heightened awareness of the importance of wireless microphones in productions across a wide variety of industries—has resulted in new thinking at the FCC regarding long-range planning for the pro audio industry.

On May 15, 2014, the FCC Commissioners approved two Report and Order (R&O) items that contained important decisions for professional wireless users. With the subsequent release of the R&O documents, the FCC has clearly taken steps to recognize the importance of professional wireless microphone operations and has made a commitment to finding sufficient spectrum to meet their needs, both now and in the future. In fact, the commission issued a press release stating that its actions “are part of the broader efforts to address the needs of wireless microphone users” in conjunction with the upcoming auction.

R&O #1: Incentive Auction
The Incentive Auction Report and Order details the plans for a voluntary auction of UHF spectrum starting at the top of the TV Band (698MHz) and going down. “Voluntary” refers to the participation by TV broadcasters to relinquish their spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds, which will come from telecom companies that bid for the spectrum. This Incentive Auction was mandated by Congress in the Middle Class Tax

Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 and is planned for mid-2015.
The amount of spectrum reallocated will likely range from 72 to 120MHz, with the actual amount unknown until the auction occurs. A complex planning and execution system is under construction at the FCC, which will create an automated exchange process never before attempted anywhere in the world.

The Incentive Auction R&O includes various possible band plan scenarios based on the amount of spectrum reclaimed. The plans include some consistent elements, however, that would be part of any post-auction scenario:

  • one dedicated TV channel (6MHz) per location for shared use between wireless microphones and TVBDs, with geolocation database reservation possible
  • a lower “guard band” of 7 to 11MHz for shared use between wireless microphones and TVBDs
  • a “duplex gap” of 11MHz between the auctioned blocks, partitioned for use by wireless microphones and TVBDs
  • remaining unoccupied 6MHz TV channels (where available) for shared use by wireless microphones and TVBDs, with geolocation database reservation possible.

Plans call for the auction to be followed by a 39-month transition period for the remaining broadcasters to be “re-packed” into the lower portion of the TV Band. That gives pro audio valuable time to work with the FCC on plans for the future, and both sides are committed to ensuring continuity of operations in the near term while long term solutions are investigated. In fact, the Incentive Auction R&O acknowledges the need to accommodate wireless microphones and indicates plans to initiate a proceeding in the near term to explore additional steps the FCC can take, including the use of additional frequency bands.

R&O #2: Part 74 Licensing Redefined
Wireless microphones (along with in-ear monitors, intercom systems and related devices such as cue and control systems) are primarily classified as licensed services under Part 74 of the FCC rules. Because wireless microphones were originally the tools of broadcasters and similar content creators, licenses for their use have been available to radio and television stations, broadcast network entities, certain cable system operators, and motion picture and television program producers. In 2010, the Commission “formally recognized the important benefits provided by wireless microphones in performances and programs in theaters, classrooms, lecture halls, houses of worship, stadiums and other venues,” and granted waivers under Part 15 rules to permit continued operation of unlicensed wireless microphones in the TV Band.

Effective with the publication of the Second Report and Order in the Federal Register, Part 74 licensing eligibility has been expanded to include professional sound companies and owners and operators of large venues that routinely use 50 or more wireless systems.

Defined By Wireless Usage
Significantly, the FCC did not limit licensing by activity or equipment ownership. Rather, it is defined by wireless usage. In effect, this means that any entity or location can be licensed as long as the threshold is met, including amphitheaters, arenas, stadiums, houses of worship, theaters, amusement parks and fairgrounds, as well as conference, convention, education and government centers. The 50-channel threshold includes all typical production wireless types: microphones, in-ear monitors, intercoms and control systems.

Similarly, eligibility as a venue or sound company is broadly defined as a person or organization that supplies the equipment, engineering expertise and/or frequency coordination, including touring and production companies that supply their own audio services. License terms are for 10 years.

Licensing affords protection in two important ways. First, license holders under Part 74 are considered a protected class, giving them priority over unlicensed users. Second, licensed operators are eligible to register in “real time” to reserve channels in the nationwide geolocation databases established in the White Spaces ruling. (Unlicensed users must seek a 30-day advance approval from the FCC to utilize the databases.)

The importance of this recognition for wireless users as a class is difficult to overstate, and it sets a critical precedent for the audio industry going forward. Wireless microphones as we know them today did not exist commercially at the time the Part 74 rules were first written. The FCC has studied carefully the wide utility that this technology has brought to American entertainment, business and culture, and this expansion of its rules is a significant acknowledgement.

Now that the opportunity is being presented, any entity that regularly operates 50 or more channels of wireless should strongly consider becoming licensed. Professionals in the installed sound industry would be wise to familiarize themselves with the process and encourage qualified customers to take advantage of this opportunity.

Technology Advances, Alternative Frequencies
As wireless broadband communications continues to envelop the frequency ranges in which broadcast television and wireless microphones have historically operated, we’ve seen significant changes in RF audio product designs.

Technology advances have made unlicensed frequency ranges, such as 900MHz and 2.4GHz (previously avoided due to factors like limited transmission range and competition with consumer devices), more attractive. VHF frequencies have gone from problematic to worthy of investment. Manufacturers that formerly optimized products only for UHF now provide multiple options. It is now not unusual to see an intermingling of different frequency ranges within a single facility or production, and for less intensive applications to use non-UHF designs.

At the same time, UHF wireless technologies have also advanced, with precision filtering and digital transmission schemes helping savvy users to pack the ever-shrinking spectrum with more channels. Specialized equipment, such as scanners and intermodulation software, once strictly the province of advanced contractors and sound engineers, has become commonplace to the point of actually being integrated into many premium wireless products.

One thing that has not changed is the constant increase in demand for wireless channels, and this evolution of the market has occurred in the face of a shrinking legal spectrum. Many productions are literally at their technical limit in terms of simultaneous channels in use, making the current and near-term FCC decisions all the more critical.

Looking Ahead
Wireless users and manufacturers are watching these recent developments closely. For many, vacating the 700MHz band a few years ago was both expensive and disruptive, and the new prospect of reductions in the 600MHz range (which became more populated as a result) will doubtless pose further challenges. Although today’s operations (both licensed and unlicensed) can continue without changes through the transition period, it is important for integrators and suppliers to understand the pending actions and how they may affect products in the field down the road.

The exact portions of the 600MHz band that will be repurposed will not be known until the auction occurs, which will, in turn, affect the exact frequencies utilized for the duplex gap and lower guard band. This means that some equipment operating in the 600MHz band in the field today may have utility after the transition, while some may not. The good news is that vacating the auctioned portions of the 600MHz band, while inevitable, will be part of the 39-month transition period for the broadcasters, which begins after the completion of a successful auction, currently planned for mid-2015. This gives everyone ample time to prepare.

For large-scale users, the most important step is to get licensed. Rules specified in the Second Report and Order, which outlines the changes to Part 74 licensing, will go into effect after the R&O is published in the Federal Register (typically around 60 days after issuance). Although the licensing procedure is somewhat involved, it is well worth the investment. This is a significant protection, and we strongly urge anyone eligible to apply.
Like any federal regulatory agency, the FCC faces a complex task. The 2015 Incentive Auction is mandated by law, and the resulting spectrum changes will affect many users. Looking at the likely consequences, the Commission decided to take additional action to ensure a workable spectrum environment for all wireless microphone operations.

Although the expansion of licensing to include large-scale wireless microphone users is a significant advance, the FCC’s new commitment to finding additional spectrum for wireless microphones is an even more important development. The Commission is formally recognizing that the changes to the UHF spectrum will affect a large class of important entities, and that it is committed to finding long-term solutions for the industry.

The Commission’s awareness of wireless microphones has increased dramatically as a result of manufacturers and key user groups providing critical information about the technologies, production requirements and scale of operations in the field today, and by shining a light on the dire consequences of staging important events without interference protection for the multitude of wireless channels required.

Although the insatiable demand for spectrum from industries and technologies of all types is an inevitable part of our future, we have the FCC’s agreement that “the show must go on” and that professional wireless is a critically important component in making that happen. Through the contents of these recent Report and Order documents, it is clear that our industry has advanced from having a very low level of visibility before the commission just 10 to 15 years ago, to now having full acknowledgement that ours is an important user community that needs to be accommodated for the long term.

Editor’s Note: For more information about this issue, see Pete Putman’s comments in this month’s “AVent Horizon, on page 98.

Mark Brunner is Senior Director, Global Brand Management, Shure Inc.

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