FCC Votes Against MI Wireless
While the rest of the country was going to the polls on November 4th to vote in the general election, members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cast a much less publicized vote of a quieter sort, one that could have far-reaching affect on the MI industry.
“We believe this vote will be serious for the industry, and will have a serious impact on us,” says NAMM’s Mary Luehrsen. “I’m no techie, but even I can look at the spectrum issue and see [problems].”
The FCC voted to allow technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, and Motorola to produce “white spaces” devices that will use the same radio frequency (RF) spectrum now being used by wireless microphone and guitar systems. These devices are said to be the next generation Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) tools, phone/Blackberry type products capable of much more than the current devices available. FCC commissioner Deborah Tate approved the legislation, saying, “I listened carefully to an amazingly broad array of comments and was assured by top engineers at the Office of Engineering Technology that interference would not be a concern.”
Few on the MI side of the issue share her viewpoint.
Bill Evans, editor of Front of House magazine, a pro audio trade book, has a firsthand account of the tests the FCC ran and says they were “total failures, yet those results have been ignored by the head of the commission.”
“We were surprised that the Commission acted so quickly despite the erratic performance of white space device prototypes tested by the FCC’s own engineers,” says Joe Ciaudelli of Sennheiser.
“While not unexpected, today’s FCC decision will greatly complicate the lives of wireless microphone users and negatively affect tens of millions of Americans listening to live and broadcast events,” announced Mark Brunner, Shure’s senior director, global public and industry relations, after the vote.
What It Means
Over 50 members of Congress, including heavy-hitters like Sen. Hillary Clinton, and a range of organizations, artists, and representatives, from the likes of Pastor Rick Warren, Dolly Parton, Guns N Roses, the Grand Ole Opry, the Shubert Theater Organization, the American Federation of Musicians, the Country Music Association, The Recording Academy, the NFL, and other major sports leagues, urged the FCC to move cautiously on the issue, ultimately to no avail.
“The use of wireless products is so commonplace,” Luehrsen, who is NAMM’s director of public affairs and government relations, says. One that came immediately to her mind was NAMM’s foundation sponsorship of the High School Musical Grant Program: “All the mics are wireless in those high schools!” Even at the community level, be it houses of worship’s praise bands or local bands, “mics, guitars, ear monitors, it’s all wireless. Now people don’t know how this ruling will impact all that. Will performers start hearing FM radio in their ears? I don’t know.” NAMM has been deeply involved in the issue for over two years, working with the coalitions, supporting letter writing campaigns, et cetera.
“These people I worked with in the industry on the issue have been really terrific,” Luehrsen says. “I’ve really enjoyed it and sorry it didn’t have a better outcome.” (Luehrsen will be leading a panel discussion at the NAMM show called, “Music Industry Legislation and Regulation: Are You Up to Speed?” where she will discuss the impact of this decision.)
“Although the FCC has adopted rules to allow white space devices (WSD) to operate in locally unused TV channels, the specifics of these rules have not yet been made public,” points out Ciaudelli. “We will not know the full impact on wireless mic users until they are released. Once they are published, we will carefully review the details of the ruling and communicate what they mean for our customers.”
Line 6 is among the companies who are already moving in different directions.
Jamie Scott, national sales manager of wireless at Line 6, says, “If [analog wireless products] don’t get some sort of protection, there will be problems on the technical side. Other companies are suggesting that this has a potential negative impact, and we don’t dispute that.”
But Line 6 has developed wireless technologies that will avoid that traditional “white space” frequencies and use 900 MegaHertz Spectrum instead. This spectrum is most known for being where cordless phones and baby monitors roam.
And he doesn’t see the sky falling on the day these new products are unleashed, but will have a snowball affect. At first there will likely be a few problems; then moving weeks, months, even years down the road, the problems will grow exponentially. “There need to be safeguards in place. We are all together in that respect.”
The reality from the very beginning was that this was nothing short of a David-and-Goliath scenario, with the profit potential so great that the FCC would likely cave to the pressure of the big companies, whether field tests conducted last summer were successful or not.
“It is encouraging that the FCC press release and each of the Commissioner’s statements cite safeguards to protect wireless mics from interference,” says Ciaudelli. “Clearly, the voice of our industry has had some impact. We hope that the rules are drafted to ensure adequate protection. Nevertheless, this ruling will pose new challenges for the pro audio industry, requiring high quality gear operated with best practices.
“Meanwhile, Sennheiser will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our customers, industry groups, and even our competitors to continually remind the FCC and our legislators of the necessity to maintain content production quality. U.S. news and entertainment is the best in the world and one of our highest valued exports. Wireless audio devices are essential to the high standard of TV, radio, film, and live entertainment that the global population has come to expect.”
“While we have several options regarding our next steps, Shure’s first obligation is to its customers,” said Sandy LaMantia, Shure president and CEO. “In anticipation of this ruling, Shure has been working diligently on technologies and technical support programs that will enable wireless microphone operators to be successful in a more complicated interference environment.”
“Products will still be usable, but not reliable,” Evans adds. “As more consumer devices enter the space, they’ll be more drop-outs and interference. At some point, current wireless products could be useless. But we can’t pinpoint when or where that happens. That’s why the MI industry is now asking for eight frequencies per market area to be set aside for wireless instruments.
“And I don’t think we’re gonna get it.”