Communication bill takes step closer to passage and undercutting sports industry

By Carolyn Braff and Ken Kerschbaumer
The U.S. Senate might have left an amendment on Net Neutrality behind but bill S. 2686, otherwise known as the “Communications, Consumers’ Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006,” is moving forward and continues to be a threat for sports broadcasters and leagues.

Yesterday the bill took one more step closer to the Senate floor where Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) will need to get 60 votes for passage. “The entire U.S. Senate is in play,” says David Donovan, president of MSTV.

The bill currently includes provisions that will allow for unlicensed consumer devices to be used within “White Space” spectrum, posing an interference threat to wireless microphones and even TV reception.

“It’s incumbent that anyone in the sports industry contacts their local U.S. Senator and explains how the provision will cause problems,” says Donovan. “We need a grass-roots effort to blanket the Senate.”

If Stevens can get his 60 votes the bill would pass the Senate and in September be put in front of a joint conference committee. “If that happens we’ll narrow down the fight to the conference committee,” says Donovan.

Edgar Reihl, Shure director of technology, says the potential damage the bill will do is vast. “There’s no change to redo a live event,” he says of interference knocking wireless microphones used by reporters and entertainers off the air. “We have to get this issue right up in front.”

Shure has been lobbying hard in DC against the legislation but Reihl says it’s an issue that impacts all wireless microphone makers and users. “White spaces are not just used by television broadcasting, or even broadcast auxiliary, but they’re also used by public safety, law enforcement industries, medical telemetry and radio astronomy,” he says. “So claims that the white spaces are vacant are just not true. Interference is going to have a major economic impact on our business.”

Gordon Moore, Lectrosonics VP of sales, says while the industry has begun exploring the use of digital-based wireless microphones it isn’t the solve-all that Washington, DC legislators believe it is. “The same laws of physics apply to it whether it’s a digital or analog platform,” he says. “As you add more and more channels together your range starts to drop logarithmically. Congress thinks we can just throw technology at this. They don’t understand that you can’t get around the laws of physics.”

Riehl says digital systems really don’t perform that much better in the presence of interference. “If the interference is louder than you are, it’s going to win,” he says. “We’re all obviously looking at digital technology, our lives are touched by that every day, but what we need are co-existence protocols.” One proposal? Building a product that will beam out a signal to unlicensed devices letting them know to keep clear of a certain frequency because it needs to be used by professionals.

The inability to change physics is why Moore believes the key is going to be proper front-end management of frequencies. “We’ll need protocols for talent, like who has what microphone on and when,” he says. “Jacking up the power is the only other approach.”

Jim Andersen, Telex project engineer, says the intercom side of the sports industry has already looked to squeeze more users into tighter spectrum. “Most of our wireless intercoms can be put into a push-to-transmit mode,” he says. “It’s a great way to try to conserve spectrum and takes a little training on your users so they know not to step on each other.”

That successful approach is one reason Sennheiser Technical Director Uwe Sattler says Sennheiser has concentrated on making its equipment extremely frequency agile. “We’ve pretty much milked out what is physically possible without sacrificing quality,” he says. “We’ve got to look forward and come up with technologies that can coexist in the changed environment that we’ll be facing.”

The biggest problem according to Moore? Government officials have trusted that the broadcast and technology sectors could overcome any technical challenge new legislation created. “ They won’t wake up to it until they see large scale failures,” he says. “If we could just arrange for every CEO and politician’s wireless mic to fail in the next 30 days that might help.”

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