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FCC’s wireless mic decision still pending

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Churches across the country eventually will have to replace wireless microphone systems operating in the 700 megahertz range, but the Federal Communications Commission’s decision on the specifics of when and how is still pending.

The issue arose with the digital television switchover that was finalized in June. During analog days, broadcasters had access to channels 2-69, but the digital switch compressed them to channels 2-51, freeing up frequencies that the FCC auctioned off to national and local bidders.

Before the switchover, broadcasters like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were using channels 2-69 essentially as a gift from the government in exchange for airing local news and other programming. That’s still the case with channels 2-51.

Wireless microphones, meanwhile, were allowed to operate in that same frequency range without charge wherever they could find space. But now that the FCC has leased channels 52-69 to major corporations, that space — also known as the 700 MHz range — can’t be used for free.

“Now you’re looking at the wireless mics that were operating in the 700 MHz range that now are potentially not going to be able to operate because that spectrum has now been sold,” Matt Nodine, chief of staff for the wireless telecommunications bureau at the FCC, told Baptist Press July 9.

“Whereas before it was ‘given’ to broadcasters, it’s now been leased essentially by major corporations — Verizon and AT&T were the two biggest bidders. Together they bid about $12 billion,” Nodine said.

A significant portion of the 700 MHz range has been reserved for public safety use, including police, fire and other first responders.

“Obviously, we don’t want to cause interference to them as they’re out there doing their jobs,” Nodine said.

Another portion of the band is reserved for groups that are licensed to use the 700 MHz space, such as Broadway shows and major sporting events. That means those who don’t fall in one of those three categories — corporations leasing the space, first responders or licensed users — will have to find another spectrum in which to operate.

In addition to churches, other wireless microphone users of this variety include university professors, business executives, parent-teacher organizations and anyone who uses wireless microphones on a smaller scale, Nodine said. For them, it becomes a matter of operating as unauthorized users within the 700 MHz range.

Not all wireless microphones used by churches and others operate within that spectrum, though, so not all microphones will have to be replaced. Even so, it could be costly. For instance, some of the higher end wireless microphone systems cost about $2,000 each.

“Those are the ones that are designed to work within that frequency range, so those are the ones that will be affected,” Chip Leake, worship pastor at the Nashville-area Thompson Station Church in Tennessee, told BP.

“They seem to carry the signal better with a lot less chance of signal dropout. That’s the reason they want the 700 MHz bandwidth to be open. The signal travels farther on less energy within that bandwidth than it does as you go outside of that bandwidth,” Leake said, noting his church will have to replace about $6,000 worth of equipment.

Another issue churches have been wondering about is the development of TV Band Devices (TVBDs), which could include next-generation mobile phones and mobile broadband cards for laptop computers that will utilize white spaces to access the Internet.

White spaces are the channels that exist between the channels that are being used for broadcasting. For example, if a local ABC affiliate broadcasts on channel 10, then channels 9 and 11 may be white spaces. The FCC is requiring that all white space devices avoid transmitting on TV channels being used by TV stations, wireless microphones and other users.

TVBDs, in order to be approved by the FCC, will have spectrum sensing capabilities to detect and avoid TV stations, wireless microphones and other users of the spectrum. But spectrum sensing technology is still under development and some wireless microphone users have expressed concern about whether the plan will work. For instance, a pastor wouldn’t want his sermon interrupted by someone’s white space device.

Leake, the worship pastor, said the white space issue hasn’t affected his church yet because Google, Microsoft and other companies are still developing the technology for the devices. Some experts have said the earliest they expect it to be available to consumers is late this year. And as the devices emerge, churches that haven’t switched out their 700 MHz equipment run the risk of experiencing interference.

Nodine of the FCC said most of the 700 MHz wireless microphone systems already are off the shelves, and they aren’t being sold to average users anymore.

“Now the question becomes, ‘Do people have to replace the systems?’ There’s no grandfathering in,” Nodine said. “It’s not like you can sit there and continue to use the 700 MHz wireless for another 15 years until the system goes out.”

As it stands now, the FCC has issued a warning that the day will come when churches and other organizations will have to stop using equipment that operates within the 700 MHz band, but there is no firm deadline. The commission is transitioning to a new chairman, and a decision may be several months away.

“It is an item pending before the commission, and we do anticipate at some point in time certain rules are going to change and the commission will release those rules at that time,” Nodine said.

Larger churches may have more flexibility in their budgets to cover the cost of replacing some of the specified equipment, and smaller churches may not have to worry about interfering in white spaces.

For example, when a pastor wears a wireless microphone on his lapel, the pack is in his pocket or attached to his belt. When he preaches, he may only be broadcasting in a radius of 15 or 20 feet because the wireless microphone receiver is in the vicinity of the pulpit, and it’s hardwired to the sound system. Smaller churches, therefore, probably aren’t even broadcasting outside the church walls.

A significant number of churches purchase equipment from a company called Shure, and Shure has announced a rebate program of up to $1,000 for the trade-in of Shure 700 MHz frequency band wireless systems and for any other manufacturers’ qualifying 700 MHz frequency band wireless systems and their related components until the end of the year. Customers may submit rebate forms with the purchase of certain replacement products, and more information is available at www.shure.com/rebate.

“Despite the fact that a final decision from the FCC is still pending, we want our customers to know that we’re here to help,” Mark Humrichouser, general manager of Shure’s Americas business unit, said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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