Wireless Microphones and the 600 MHz Band

FCC

By Ben Stowe, CTS – “Sound & Lighting Guru”

Much speculation has been placed on the future of the 600 MHz band with regard to it’s use for wireless microphones. This is largely due to the lack of good factual information. It’s not so much that this information has been withheld, but more so that this is taking place in a somewhat complicated political landscape and there isn’t much of it to be had.

Here’s what we know so far. In 2012 the FCC received authorization from Congress to repack the 600 MHz spectrum via a reverse auction that will create additional bandwidth for mobile broadband carriers. In June of 2014 they released their plan for a reverse auction. Following the reverse auction, during which broadcasters trade their existing frequencies for cash, there will be a forward auction to the broadband providers. If it’s any indication of how much is at stake here the recent AWS-3 auction generated more than $44,000,000,000.

This affects us because many wireless microphones and in-ear monitors operate between 470 and 698 MHz. A substantial number of them operate in the 600 MHz band, and these users would be forced to reband their wireless equipment or stop using it altogether. While this is sure to create heartache for wireless mic users, one only needs to take a quick glance that the auction revenues to understand why it happens. Wireless mics operated by DJs generate $0 for the FCC. They are unlicensed users who occupy unused portions of the spectrum. Wireless mic users can kind of be thought of as “squatters” who pitch their tent on some open ground without any real rights to use it. Generally speaking this isn’t an issue, until we try to squat on ground that is owned by somebody. While the legality of doing so is an issue, the bigger issue is that whatever is occupying that space is largely much more powerful and our equipment simply won’t work anyway.

That being said, there is no doubt that wireless mics are a ubiquitous part of life today, and DJs aren’t the only users to be affected. Concert tours, Houses of Worship, Broadway, Broadcast and more will be affected. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters has made bold statements to the FCC in defense of wireless mic users. One of these statements read as follows, “Given the scope of displacement that has already occurred, and the additional displacement that the FCC’s decisions concerning the incentive auction will create, it is critical for the FCC to immediately identify new bands on which wireless microphones may operate.” They added, “While the FCC professes to understand the importance of wireless microphones, the reality is that no spectrum user has lost more and gained less in this proceeding than wireless microphones.”

Currently, the auction has been postponed until 2016, and following the final determination of the new spectral landscape there is a 39 month time period before those changes take effect, meaning that at a minimum wireless mic users have nothing to fear until 2020. Beyond that, a lot is uncertain as to how much bandwidth the FCC will reallocate. There are proposals ranging from 84 MHz to 126 MHz. There will almost certainly remain some spectrum in the 600 MHz that wireless mics can make use of, if nothing else the guard bands that will have to be in place for the broadband carriers.

At the end of the day I feel we are on the cusp of great innovation. This is likely to be the last major repacking for quite some time, and it’s been a long time coming really. With hundreds of millions of smartphones in use the world is a different place today, and that bandwidth must be made available to support them. For wireless mic users frequency agile tuning and robust wireless circuits are increasingly a must. Users will also need to become better educated about their equipment and the spectrum it uses. This will lead to better practices about antenna usage and placement as well.

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