With Spectrum Auction Delayed, Mic Development Is in Limbo

By: Dan Daley, Audio Editor, SportsVideo.org

The FCC announced that the voluntary auction of UHF spectrum in the 600 MHz range, scheduled to take place in mid 2015, will be delayed until some time the following year. For manufacturers of wireless microphones, the delay postpones the time when wireless users must vacate the 600 MHz band, but it may not help the manufacturers resolve the issues raised.

The stated cause of the delay — the second for this particular spectrum reallocation — is a National Association of Broadcasters lawsuit that asserts that the auction will hurt stations choosing to keep their licensed spectrum. The schedule for the court case seems to indicate that any decision is “not likely until mid 2015.” As a result, the FCC now says it will accept applications for the auction next fall.

Gary Epstein, chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, stated in a blog post, “Despite this brief delay, we remain focused on the path to successfully implementing the incentive auction.”

The NAB responded in a statement: “It is more important to get the auction done right than right now. … We reject suggestions that our narrowly focused lawsuit is cause for delay. We look forward to a speedy resolution of our legal challenge and a successful auction that preserves access to free and local TV for every American.”

Mic Makers Have Their Own Concerns
Manufacturers of wireless microphones took special note of the delay, assessing it as essentially a pause in the process, extending by six to nine months the period when existing wireless users must vacate the 600 MHz band, 39 months after the outcome of the spectrum auction is published.

However, the additional time may not help them deal with issues and questions raised in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 14-145), which was described by the FCC when it was issued in September as “a proceeding to address the long-term needs of wireless-microphone users” that “seeks comment on authorizing wireless-microphone operations in additional spectrum bands.” The document asks for input from users on how to go about minimizing disruption to existing wireless microphone users.

Joe Ciaudelli, chief U.S. spectrum correspondent for Sennheiser, says that the document seeks responses to more than 100 specific questions, underscoring the amount of work necessary to keep professional wireless-microphone operations compliant with whatever the newly reconfigured RF landscape looks like. However, the six to nine months that the NAB lawsuit delays the process won’t really help there, because most of those answers will depend on how much spectrum is sold, where in the band the final television channels will be located, and how they will be packed. And only then can development of new products, to replace those being made redundant by spectrum reallocation, move into a higher gear.

“After all of that takes place — the auction itself, the publication of the final outcomes — then you can get new products to end users in two years,” Ciaudelli estimates. “The trouble is, things aren’t even close to being fully defined, as indicated by the numerous questions raised in 14-145. Will the regulations governing the reallocated spectrum be fully defined as quickly as we need them to be to migrate people out of the 600 MHz band?”

Mark Brunner, senior director of global brand management at Shure, pointed out that the NAB’s litigation is aimed in part at sorting out a technical issue: the software that will be needed to ensure that stations that don’t participate in the auction will have the same coverage within the remaining spectrum that they had before reallocation. The delay can buy broadcasters some extra time to do that. Key points of what wireless-product manufacturers need to address for their next generation of microphones, though, will have to wait till the auction is over and the 39-month clock begins ticking.

“We’ll be looking at alternative frequency ranges and modifications to existing products to accommodate the new spectrum reality,” Brunner says. “The modifications are what will be addressed in 14-145.”

But Ciaudelli notes a kind of Catch-22 in that: “Each of the alternative ranges is already being used for other wireless services. Operational and equipment regulations will be mandated to ensure those incumbent services are not compromised by allowing mics to share their spectrum. Those rules have to be fully defined before mic manufacturers can enter final design and production phases.”

The FCC is tasked with reallocating 300 MHz worth of RF spectrum to consumer mobile devices over a decade, most of it coming from spectrum historically used by broadcasters and professional wireless-microphone users. The 700 MHz range was vacated three years ago, essentially by federal fiat. The now delayed auction is a more complex proposition: broadcasters are being asked to voluntarily give back portions of their RF bandwidth in return for a share of the auction proceeds.

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