FCC Wireless Ruling: Changes Still Coming, MI Industry Still Reacting
Sky fails to fall, but uncertainty remains.
If the story of the Federal Communications Commission and wireless music projects was a novel (and it’s feeling like a Russian one), at this point the tale might begin, “It was the not-so-best of times, and the not-so-worst of times.”
Two years ago, MMR did an in-depth feature on the battle of what was then referred to as PDAs (cell phones) versus wireless mics, monitors, and stringed instruments. It looked grim, with a great many unknowns. After reviewing that article, Shure’s Chris Lyons laughed and said, “This feels like it’s from 100 years ago!”
Scott Harmala, CTO/VP of ATK, says some of the uncertainty is gone, and the impact of these changes is clearer. “To date, these ‘white space’ devices haven’t really come to fruition. There hasn’t been the proliferation that so many thought would happen. And today, 4G is more economic and it’s questionable if there is any bandwidth advantage over that.”
Sennheiser’s Joe Ciaudelli reports that, considering we’re talking about the government here, things have turned out so far so good. “The FCC made some prudent, measured, and practical decisions,” he says carefully. “They were faced with a difficult challenge, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how well they handled it. I mean, five or seven years ago there was a real sky-is-falling scenario with the prospect that all wireless mics might be obsolete. But the FCC did listen to our concerns and Doomsday scenarios just did not come to fruition.”
On February 22 of this year, President Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. Here’s why it matters to those who buy, sell, and work with wireless products: in it is an agreement to auction an estimated $22B worth of spectrum, then use $7B of that to fund a nationwide “D-Block” LTE network for emergency first responders.
Under their 2010 National Broadband Plan, the FCC called for taking TV airwaves for mobile broadband use, proposing auctions to turn over 120 MHz (20 TV channels) of the UHF TV band to private use for Super WiFi that could provide broadband wireless internet to rural areas. Our wireless carrier friends (AT&T, Sprint, Nextel, Verizon, et cetera.) have lobbied for more UHF airwaves to stave off a looming spectrum crunch that would likely mean more dropped calls and slower connection speeds for wireless customers. Those increasingly ubiquitous wireless toys like iPad, iPhone, and Android smart-phones has made them want to move fast.
But the first auction of television spectrum is likely years away, noted industry sources Joe Ciaudelli of Sennheiser and Mark Brunner, Chris Lyons, and Edgar Reihl of Shure, because of the time it takes for the FCC to develop rules for the new auctions and to seek public comment.
The FCC’s previous DTV auction of the 700 MHz band for $19B in March 2008 was originally mandated by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and didn’t result in cleared spectrum until 2009, 12 years later. The new legislation stipulates that this won’t happen again, which sounds somewhat like the little boy promising not to stick his hand in the cookie jar…
The 700 Club
The sky did fall for one tried-and-true aspect of the MI wireless business: the old 700MHz systems. While many of those still work, depending on where they are being used and their specific tuning, they are illegal with fines up to $10,000. But much like driving on the wrong side of the road at 100 miles per hour in North Dakota, it only matters if you get caught or run into somebody else.
In the immediate aftermath, there were, in fact, unscrupulous players – those who dumped their 700MHz products on eBay knowing that they were now illegal and wouldn’t work in more and more environments.
While all the major manufacturers were aggressive in educating their customers, there’s always some that don’t get the message. “It’s funny – I had a call from a guy three weeks ago, just hearing about the 700 MHz change over,” says Lyons shaking his head. “I told him that I’m surprised with all the articles and notices he didn’t here about it. He told me he was a professional presenter – doesn’t read House of Worship magazines, doesn’t read MMR, doesn’t read pro audio magazines…”
That person and those like him aside, Lyons has no sympathy for those with knowledge still using 700MHz and, given the opportunity, sets them straight. “I tell people you’re the one still using that wireless and it happens to be the same frequency as a first responder, an ambulance is using? That’s a legal and ethical issue, and when you present it in that light, they immediately agree that, yeah, it’s not worth it.”
PDA – er, TVBD Devices
The fear is that the next generation of cell phone devices will cause problems. These were previously referred to as PDAs, now referred to as TV Band Devices (TVBD). But the scenario is the same: somebody walks into a club with one of these things and suddenly the guitarist is getting interference because instead of listening to the solo, that guy with the smartphone is downloading the latest Seth Rogen movie.
Now the way the TVBDs are supposed to work is: before it starts transmitting, it will in theory use a GPS-type device to see what frequencies are being used and divert it to a band that is not being used at that specific location.
Harmala calls that spectrum, “Malibu Beach-like property. TV band is really well suited for coverage over metro areas. There are problems with low frequencies, and there are problems with high frequency microwaves. Higher lines of site are needed, can go through mountain and trees.”
Ciaudelli says a problem might never come up. Rather than portable devices, he sees the technology being used in the home. “I see the first TVBDs being like a media server, a black box you buy and put all your movies and photos and it sends them to whatever speakers or screens you have in the house whenever you want [wirelessly]. But that will remain in the house so would be benign for us.”
Harmala agrees, but points out that if they do become mobile, fitting into someone’s pocket, it very much might be terrible scenario for the industry. “But the jury is still out on that – I’m wondering if those personal applications will ever come.” Testing devices were riddled with problems, and the manufacturers struggled to make them comply with the rules. “Just like anything in life it’s a matter of a return on your investment. Even if it’s ‘beachfront property,’ it’ll be difficult to make money on it.”
Today’s Wireless Environment
“This story is still unfolding, although we’re a lot more clear on things then we were a while ago,” states Shure’s Mark Brunner. “Today there are several mechanism in place to manage the spectrum between pro audio and new uses, but the overall government structure has been worked out. Now we’re putting those technical pieces in place, as we have begun to see products that are developed for UHF for other non-audio purposes. We’re moving along the evolutionary path. It’s a slow, but visible evolution.”
One of the many other aspects of recent legislations is that the FCC is providing an incentive for local broadcasters to voluntarily relocate on the broadband by providing them some money back from selling it off. Whether they go for it is the question. “It’s hard to imagine a TV station in a big market doing that, though smaller independent stations, like low-power religious stations in small markets, could.”
Brunner quickly adds though the problems will not happen in small markets, it’ll happen in big ones with a lot of interference and a lot of music, house of worship, and theater going on. “Nobody knows if there is enough space in the right market to make this plan actually workable. This could take 10 years to sort out.”
“There are lots of rumors flying around still, panicking going on, sky is falling – but nothing in Washington happens quickly,” Lyons points out. “The FCC has to issue plans. Then it has to open it for comments. The spectrum is changing and will keep changing, but nothing [dramatic] is going to happen a week from now.”
Ciaudelli says the MI industry’s advocacy lead to the FCC designating two TV channels in every area of the nation for wireless use for use. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the grammar school doing a musical or a house of worship or a local rock band in a club, they’ll be two TV channels to operate the mic,” he says. And as long as there’s a bit of space – say a couple of hundred feet – two different venues could be operating in them without interfering with each other. “I could have 16 wireless mics working here in this building, and there could be another 16 in the same two frequencies two blocks away.”
For now, the big productions – Superbowls, Award shows, et cetera. – are reasonably protected with the channels the FCC has reserved for them. “Let’s say you’re doing the Rose Bowl,” explains Ciaudelli. “Broadcasters will go directly to the FCC database and say I need these channels, and reserve them.”
For those bigger events ATK still uses a combination of well-coordinated frequency planning and software that can search frequencies and move from one to the other are key. “The simulation software will give you the best plan when you go to the site, knowing where there is interference and where there isn’t,” Harmala says. “You have to have a good frequency plan, and then good execution. Laying the antenna design to maximize the RF you’re trying to capture and then the RF you’re trying to reject. You don’t want to listen to the whole universe, just a slice of it.” Cavity filters are key, but aren’t consumer friendly. “They are clunky and akin to tuning an old tube TV.
“There will be challenges for the nonprofessional,” he continues. “The churches, the simple blues festivals – people that just know to turn the ‘on’ switch and it works. They don’t understand how the spectrum is allocated, so it’ll be increasingly problematic. For pros, the bigger shows, they understand.”
Sennheiser has reacted to this with their 5000 Series Transmitters. These are able to operate in low “intermodulation mode” which “is a type of harmonic distortion … every electronic device that has transistors has some type of harmonic distortion and if you can reduce that you can make more wireless mics into a smaller space.” So instead of maxing out at eight mics on a frequency, with this you can operate 10 or even 12.
“So we’re coming out with products that are more spectrally efficient,” Ciaudelli says.
Also, in addition to new hardware, the company is going to be offering new services related to these changes. “We are going to offer customers our help in figuring out frequencies, be there for phone support, and in the case of big permanent projects like theme parks, professional consultation so they can coordinate the entire operation.”
“One of the things Shure is working on is to make wireless work more densely,” says Lyons. “We just created a UHF digital system that gives you 14 systems in one channel, and that number is creeping forward. We have some other tricks up our sleeves … there are other spectrums outside of TV that might be viable, like that 900MHz system.” Their flagship system is the Axient, which is a system that can sense interference and jump to another channel. “That’s the ultimate bullet-proof solution, but it’s expensive. But for live TV events when dropouts are the issue, there needs to be a solution.”
For ATK the relocation of the spectrum has been a challenge. “Everybody is focused on the white space, but the relocation of the spectrum has had the biggest impact. Obviously going full digital has been a bit of a challenge for us because digital by nature occupies the whole channel, as opposed to analog. We’ve had to develop new applications on site to exist with the digital world. This has had to do with filtering technique – what we’re trying to do is get the best signal, and that’s the best way to the future.”
“For retailers, it’s tough because they are at so many different tiers,” says Harmala. “Shure has recognized that their Axiom is not really a Guitar Center-type product. It’s not something you just get out of the box and plug in and go. It’s a system approach, something that calls for factory training. But for the average retailer, it’s tough. Pros are staying on top of the spectrum changes, and retailers should if they can because they can offer valuable product support and have happier customers … but my gut tells me that’s just not going to happen.”
Work in Washington
As reported here and elsewhere, the industry got themselves to Washington and in front of politicians.
“It definitely helped,” says Ciaudelli. “If we sat on our hands and did nothing, we would not have gotten nearly the favorable FCC ruling we did. I do wish the change never happened, but because we were vocal and stuck to the facts, we convinced them of the value wireless mics bring.
“Let’s face it – there’s one thing Americans do really well and that’s entertainment. We create the best in the world. It’s the only product we have a consistently favorable trade balance! [laughs]. We export more of it then we important. The FCC was able to realize how ubiquitous and thus important wireless is.”
“Washington boils down to compromise,” Brunner sighs. “We were just happy that our relatively small industry had a voice in the process and the FCC was particularly interested in the complexity of it.” He credits the industry’s ability to marshal the power of two unusual bedfellows: Professional sports and Houses of Worship.
He reminds us that this is hardly just “our” issue – the U.S. is not an island. “This is happening worldwide. Australia, Japan, Canada, UK, Germany… all the others are dealing with the mobile broadband consumption of spectrum. What we learned in Washington applies elsewhere.”
This story is far from having reached its last page, he warns: “The need for government to seek revenue enhancing avenues through the selling of white space is driving everything.”