Venue Q&A: Broad Comm’s Libin, CoachComm’s Turkington on RF Management
By Rick Price, president, MOEBAM! Venue Media Services, and committee chair, SVG Venue Technology Initiative
Louis Libin founded and is president of Broad Comm, a technology-consulting group whose clients have included GE, NBC, ABC, CBS, Turner, Olympic Committees, the USTA, the USGA, equipment manufacturers, foreign governments, and media start-ups. He is well-known as a professional advisor in the broadcast, telecom, software, and communications industries and is the frequency coordinator for New York City.
Tom Turkington serves as VP of technology for CoachComm, which pioneers communication technologies, including the Tempest system. Developing headset and communication technologies that are dependable, durable, and easy to use has made CoachComm a leader in providing communication solutions to athletic programs nationwide.
Together, the two will compile the next section of SVG’s Venue Technology White Paper, focusing on best practices in RF management for venue operators. SVG sat down with Libin and Turkington to discuss the current state of RF coordination, what challenges lie ahead, and their goals for the white paper.
Tell us a little about your company and your role.
Tom Turkington: I’ve been with CoachComm for 12 years, and my primary responsibility is research and development, product development, and integrating [other companies’] technology into our product-development pipeline. When large companies like Google, GE, Microsoft, IBM, or Cisco develop a nice piece of technology that can be utilized for other things that are more application-specific to what we’re doing, that’s kind of my role in discovering those technologies and bringing them in.
In addition, in the past primarily, I have been responsible for much of the frequency coordination and game management of wireless for most of our customers. We have about 117 of the 121 Division I college football teams that use our products, so we’re in a lot of stadiums every Saturday. I oversee broadly now all the coordination and game-day operational stuff for that.
Louis Libin: Broad Comm works with networks and other content providers — mainly for sports but not necessarily only for sports — and it manages the frequency coordination for many events; we’re through the events as well, so I come from sort of both sides of the aisle. As an example, for a big golf event, I might be there for one of the broadcasters, or I might be there for the event itself. I work on a whole bunch of other major events but some smaller [ones] as well. I also manage the New York City-area frequency coordination, below 1 gig right up to the microwave.
Both of you volunteered to participate in SVG’s next addition to the SVG Venue Technology White Paper: RF Management Best Practices for Venue Operators. Why is a document like this a valuable resource?
LL: As much as we are aware of what’s going on, what needs to be done, we live in a world where the RF coordination is not well-known; the whole subject and the whole reason for it are just not well-known. Some broadcasters [that] come into a new venue [are] used to others and don’t know the process, what do we do, or, in worst case, [they think they] can just turn on and fire up.
TT: I would just add, from CoachComm’s perspective, most of the coaching staffs are geniuses. They see the game in a way that we can never hope to. They’re incredibly bright, but they can’t turn the light switch on without help. They are so technically challenged that they’re focused on this one aspect [of the game] to the exclusion of everything else, and so that’s [where] their teams and their staffs tend to be focused. [Documenting] something that venues can incorporate into their process can help eliminate the users’ not knowing what to do. If it’s out there, if it’s standardized, if it becomes sort of the norm for what you do when you go into a venue, I think everybody benefits.
Can you briefly describe typical uses for wireless in a venue, the frequency ranges, and why it’s important to manage the spectrum?
LL: You start out from the bottom and go up. You have these now unused UHF TV channels [that] are being used for communications or wireless mics. But [use of those channels is not] as prevalent as the use of UHF spectrum for wireless mics, ear mics, and IFBs by the broadcasters and the event. It used to go up to 800 MHz; then it went up to 700 MHz; now it goes up to around 600 MHz, [and] we’re about to hit more changes than that.
So we have the wireless mics, we have in-ear mikes, and we have the IFBs as well. And those operate at different powers, all within the same spectrum, and they’re not all used by the same personnel. That’s the reason a lot of the issues could come up. … Within that same spectrum, you have the house systems, the house PA and everything else that’s in there, and there are a lot of them.
You go higher, and now you’re in the regions of 800 MHz — the cell people are in there — and you have the 900 MHz, where the phone systems [are]. Above 1 gig, you’re in the camera channel, and those camera channels are a little neater because there aren’t as many as there are wireless mics. But there are more and more sitting in the gigahertz [range]. They start out at 2, and right now they go to 7; you can have 13 [GHz and even higher] inside as well, but, in the future, we’re going to be moving to a different band.
Where in the spectrum within a venue is the greatest increase in use, and how is that causing greater need for spectrum policy and management?
TT: There are increases in production demands and increases in wireless devices coming into that area, but really [it’s] the density increases coming from shrinkages in the band that make the problem of frequency coordination and spectrum-sharing much more difficult. If you asked [the industry] directly what is the fastest-growing band from a number of devices coming in, I would probably estimate that that’s the 2.4 [GHz] band, up around where WiFi is. You’ve got, of course, WiFi and the channels that are coming in there, which have been there for quite some time, but the densities of those networks are going up as most stadiums try to offer higher bandwidth to each user in every seat in the stadium. Then, there’s a proliferation of other devices: wireless intercoms, all kinds of Bluetooth and smartphone applications, as well as numerous other devices. There were dozens of booths at NAB  that had pilotable drones, [and] almost all of them used the control channel in 2.4 [GHz] so I think that band is probably the fastest-growing band we have.
With the growing use of wireless technologies, what current challenges have you seen/experienced with managing RF-spectrum use in a venue?
LL: WiFi is potentially being expanded by the [FCC], but also many, many other systems … [are] expanding, and there is no way of coming into a venue and saying, ‘This is a venue that has these particular audio enhancements so I now know what to do with it’ or ‘This is a venue that’s using the UHF spectrum in a certain manner for some audience playback on their Android devices or iPhones.’ So that challenge, really, is being able to keep up because, [when] we talk about managing the spectrum, it’s not keeping a database. That’s the fallacy. It’s being able to figure out what can really work using math and sometimes just using common sense. It’s being able to figure out what works and how to make it work best.
TT: This is a critical first step, but, if you stop there, it’s almost meaningless. What Louis said, and I completely agree with, you have to take it to the next step for a database to be of any value at all.
From a venue-operations and broadcast-support perspective, what are some of the current or potential changes in federal laws and spectrum allocation that will affect venue operators?
LL: The biggest change that’s coming is this incentive auction that’s being discussed right now. There are changes in the rules or changes in the plans of the FCC and the broadcasters literally on a daily basis, and that has the potential to be a real disrupter for venues and for events. Frankly, we don’t know what will happen. If there’s the spectrum repacking, which really means that there’ll be a huge disruption in the spectrum with other users coming into that band, where do wireless mics end up? They’ll end up in a single UHF channel. That’s a terrible [scenario] because it means that we don’t all fit in and we have to go someplace else. That’s easier said than done: you can’t just move equipment; you have to design it, develop it, build it, and test it, and that’s a multiyear program. There’s a lot of uncertainty.
TT: In that band with mobile devices is wireless intercom, which is used in all of these cases. CoachComm’s wireless intercom operates in a different band, [but] the vast majority of wireless intercoms [still] operate in the UHF band. The wireless intercom, by definition, needs two different TV channels, and those TV channels have to be separated by a relatively large margin. … There are certain operational requirements that must be mandated for proper operation [and] that the FCC has zero intent on keeping in place, so it’s bad for wireless microphones and IFB and all those kinds of things.
Based on your experience, what do you see as the next big development in technology that will either challenge or aid effective RF management in venue audio/video technology?
TT: As frequency becomes less abundant, technologies are going to have to be developed that share the spectrum more easily. … Those technologies exist, but they don’t really exist in wireless microphones and in-ear monitors and IFBs primarily because of latency issues. In wireless microphones, if you have a person standing up in front of a podium speaking out to a ballroom or a church or something like that, the amount of latency that you can tolerate between the microphone transmitter and the receiver is extraordinarily small. When you incorporate these technologies, that latency becomes outside of the window of tolerability, so I think that the next stages of technology development in wireless microphones and in our industry is to be the development of spread spectrum or frequency-sharing/spectrum-sharing technologies that maintain the audio quality that we’ve come to expect in analog-based single-frequency wireless microphones. That helps because you can fit more devices into a current piece of spectrum, but it also makes it much harder because those processes are more automated and much more difficult to specifically control.
Tell us your purpose for serving on the Venue Technology Committee and what you hope to accomplish with this white paper.
LL: For me, it’s very simple. The more technology people, the more broadcast-related, event-related people, who are aware of frequency-coordination and -management issues, the better it is for all of us as an industry and for us who actually come to the venues and do events. I really hope that we’re able to accomplish a consensus paper that is essentially apolitical. Nobody has any hidden agenda here; this is just to have transparency at a venue so that we all can coexist.