Early Ignition: New Spectrum Users Light Up 600-MHz, Take Wireless Mic Users by Surprise

Broadcasters must face reality sooner than many expected, as the spectrum repack ramps up quickly

A recent article in online publication TVNewsCheck raised an alarm about the actual amount of time that wireless microphone systems users will have to get out of the way of the recently concluded FCC spectrum reallocation. The article discussed how users of unprotected channels, regardless of their primary or secondary broadcast service status, may find those channels being used sooner than anticipated by the buyers of recently auctioned spectrum.

Karl Voss, chief engineer at noncommercial KAET Phoenix and the SBE/NFL frequency coordinator, was quoted as saying, “Many [equipment] vendors have been telling everybody not to worry about wireless mics. They say: ‘You won’t have to get off your channels till 2020 at the end of the transition.’ But that’s simply not true.”

Voss was referring to the 39-month transition period mandated by the FCC to allow existing residents of sold-off spectrum to find alternate frequencies to work on. Broadcasters once had two UHF channels reserved in each broadcast market for wireless microphone use; however, in the wake of the spectrum auction, according to the article, “Once a wireless carrier moves into its newly acquired spectrum — perhaps onto unprotected channels used by wireless mics — broadcasters must vacate.”

“I think the wireless mic folks are in for a big challenge because everybody had this idea that there would be this semi-orderly transition based on the phases,” Voss continued. “That’s not the case.”

Manufacturers Comment
Wireless systems manufacturers largely agree. Jackie Green, president and CTO of Alteros, the wireless-microphone company spun off by Audio-Technica specifically to develop alternate products for a newly realigned spectrum landscape, tells SVG, “I believe misconception is still strong, and a number of wireless microphone users — and some wireless manufacturers — still think they will have 39 months to use their gear, and this is likely not true in many cases.”

Green relates a recent report about a problem during a live broadcast from an off-Broadway theater in Manhattan. Moments before the show was to start, all the wireless microphones were disrupted by a 600-MHz cellular-phone signal that turned on in same facility. Fortunately, she says, the experienced on-site RF coordinator was able to identify the source of the problem and the operator of the 600-MHz transmission node cooperated and turned off.

T-Mobile has been especially assertive in lighting up the more than 1,500 wireless licenses it acquired nationally — 45% of all the spectrum up for bid, it claims — at a cost of almost $8 billion, as it begins to ramp up its 5G network.

“I am certain there will be cases like this repeated across the country over the next six months, since T-Mobile is firing up nation-wide, and less-experienced users are going to be… scratching their heads and wondering why all of a sudden their wireless microphones do not work,” says Green. “There will be users expecting a slow, planned, well-communicated process who won’t even see it coming.”

Shure’s Mark Brunner, VP of Corporate and Government Relations, put it more succinctly, stating, “T-Mobile has made indications that it will be moving quickly to deploy in many markets. Although the TV transition is planned for 39 months in 10 phases, auction winners can occupy now-vacant spectrum in the 600 band on their own timetables. It is the obligation of the wireless mic operator not to create interference with licensed services once they commence operation.”

Joe Ciaudelli, director of spectrum affairs at Sennheiser, says his company has posted white papers and other documentation alerting users to the looming changes, as well as sales rebates to stimulate new inventories that reflect the departure of the 600-MHz bands.

“The characterization that we weren’t informing users is definitely not the case,” he says. “The year 2020 might seem far off, but because spectrum buyers can begin using their new bandwidth as soon as its paid for, wireless microphone users in certain markets are going to feel the impact sooner than others.

“I think [broadcast-audio] engineers have been aware of this for some time, but that their colleagues who control budgets may not have been as aware,” he continues. “They’re beginning to realize that this is more urgent than they might have thought.”

Voss, who referred to the 39-month period as a “red herring” that diverted attention away from the fact that interference problems could occur much sooner, suggested that the obfuscatory nature of governmental communications played a role in fostering complacency, pointing to a 77-page directive from the FCC released earlier this week. “End users aren’t reading these,” he says. “Even those of us in the industry are hard-pressed to get through some of these.” He also wondered if wireless users who still remember losing the 700-MHz band with the arrival of DTV are holding back, expecting even more transitions that will affect equipment budgets. He also cited the wireless carriers that bought the spectrum for shrouding the transition process further.

“[The mobile phone companies] are eager to roll out their new service, and they don’t want to tell the competition where their new cell cites are going to be,” he explained. “That makes it harder to get the word out when and where they’re going to light up.”

Both Broadway and the NFL start their new seasons in about two months. The entertainment business is likely going to experience some drama that hopefully never makes it the stage or to the air.

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