The FCC, spectrum auctions and wireless microphones

The territory was once wide open, with room for any settler brave enough to venture into the unknown and claim a stake. That’s not the Wild West we’re referring to, but the frequency spectrum that half a century ago — before smartphones, tablets and other devices still in development — was large enough to accommodate just about any broadcaster who needed to tap in.

Times have changed. In 2008 the FCC, starting with Auction 72, began chopping up bandwidth. An interesting cast of characters was assembled. Developments in digital technology meant that analog stations — gram and gramps if you will — were in danger of being swept aside. Digital requires much less bandwidth, so the FCC mandated that stations that hung their shingles in the 700MHz and up area of the spectrum yield that territory in an auction coincident with the DTV transition. But the old folks, analog stations in rural areas, for example, fought to hang onto their space.

Major telecommunications companies, Verizon and AT&T among them, seized on the “open access” aspect of the FCC decision, demanding more space for their customers. An interesting coalition of forces was built, with huge companies and consumer activist groups like and Public Knowledge arguing that broadcasters should not be allowed to hold onto the lion’s share of bandwidth.

Auction 73 — round one of a multiround battle as it turns out — turned out as you might expect. About $20 billion were spent on bands between 698MHz and 806MHz, with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility spending approximately 80 percent of the total. Surprised?

In 2009, during the 111th Congress, Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois introduced a bill, HR 4353, that required the FCC “to authorize access by owners and operators of certain wireless microphones to a geolocation database maintained for the purpose of prohibiting the operation of unlicensed TV band devices on protected frequencies, and for other purposes.”

That’s right, a new chorus was added to the cast. Wireless microphone technology has continued to get better, and as a result this technology is in greater demand than ever before by ENG crews, sports, worship, corporations, musical touring, theater and even (gasp) major opera companies. Wireless users, and the manufacturers who serve them, were heavily affected by Auction 72, since the hardware in many of these devices was locked into the 700MHz band that was no longer available to them.

In 2010, the FCC issued a formal ruling that allows unlicensed radio transmitters to operate in white spaces — the unused spectrum between TV stations — where wireless microphones have operated for decades. In order for white space devices to be used without causing havoc they will have to have access to a database, updated by geolocation, that lets them know where free space exists at any given moment.

All of which leads us to the Middle Class Tax Act of 2012, or, more specifically, Sec. 6101-6703 of that bill. This provision, the Spectrum Auction, “grants the FCC the authority to hold voluntary incentive auctions, allocates necessary spectrum for a nationwide interoperable broadband network for first responders, provides $7 billion for public safety broadband network build out, and provides up to $1.75 billion for relocation costs for broadcasters. This provision is estimated to raise $15 billion over the next 11 years.”

We’ll get deeper into this issue in a future post and include detailed remarks from Mark Brunner, Sr. Director, Global Brand Management, Shure. Mark was very generous with his time and has a lot to say on this subject!