FCC Proposal Could Ease Loss of 600 MHz Spectrum for Wireless-Mic Users

The FCC on Friday circulated a draft of proposed rules for the upcoming RF-spectrum auction, part of a decade-long reconfiguration of the airwaves to accommodate new wireless technologies. Included in the draft are plans to address wireless microphones, a critical component of live sports broadcasts and whose use is expected to be further curtailed after the loss of the 700 MHz UHF band in an auction three years ago.

A fact sheet accompanying a blog post by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler outlined the importance of spectrum below 1 GHz being made available to a wider array of users. It states that, with respect to wireless-microphone users, among others, the Incentive Auction Report & Order (R&O) will adopt “a transition allowing for continued operation until new license holders become operational” and that the FCC will consider “issues surrounding these displaced services in separate proceedings contemporaneous or shortly following the adoption of the R&O.”

The wording is still vague, but it represents the first time that the FCC has specifically addressed wireless-microphone operations in the early stages of the auction process. Allowing existing 600-MHz wireless microphones to continue to operate after the auction but before the new spectrum owners have commenced their use of it represents significantly less disruption than what took place after the 700 MHz band was vacated in 2010, in the wake of the transition to digital television.

In addition, there may be some permanent spaces for wireless systems in the 600 MHz band going forward. These may be found in the so-called guard bands needed to separate uplink and downlink swatches of spectrum used by cellular-services providers. However, the exact location and size of these guard bands won’t be known until after the R&O has been fully ratified. And, observes Mark Brunner, senior director for global brand management for wireless-systems manufacturer Shure, other “interested parties” will make their own desires known to the FCC about uses for those strips of spectrum.

However, Brunner, who has been Shure’s point person with the FCC during the lengthy and serpentine spectrum-reallocation process, is optimistic that at least some of the 600 MHz band will remain available for use by wireless operators, including sports broadcasters, beyond the transition period referred to in last week’s remarks. And he feels that the continued presence of wireless-systems manufacturers, including Shure and Sennheiser, and users during the deliberations on the R&O’s language was instrumental in getting the FCC to consider a transition that ensures that access to the 600 MHz band won’t be terminated abruptly. Use of any part of a dramatically reallocated 600 MHz band will also put a renewed emphasis on the accuracy and accessibility of the national frequency database that was established as part of the White Spaces transition in 2010.

Other areas will also remain unclear for the immediate future. “There are questions about licensing eligibility and technology going forward, about whether the FCC should be able to mandate certain technologies for [wireless audio] products,” Brunner says. “These aren’t questions that are part of the docket per se, but their resolution is part and parcel with the larger issues surrounding use of the spectrum.”

More clarification on these and other points is expected to be addressed by the R&O when it is finalized, after it is voted on by the full commission in its May 15 meeting.

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