FCC order finalizes ban of RF mics in 700MHz range

After a wait of roughly 14 months after the FCC’s Second Report and Order on White Spaces, the agency has finally issued a firm date for the cessation of wireless microphone systems in the 700MHz band that has been reallocated to new licensees. In essence, the use of any wireless mic, in-ear or communications system in the 698MHz-806MHz range will become illegal as of June 12, 2010, exactly one year after the DTV transition occurred. Users of systems that operate in the 700MHz band are required to retire them by that date.

Over the past decade, microphone manufacturer Shure has led the charge in representing the interests of wireless users in the face of massive assaults on available spectrum, both through the 700MHz reallocation and the transition to DTV. In an exclusive interview, Chris Lyons, Shure’s educational and technical communication manager, clarified several points regarding the ongoing battle to protect wireless users from interference.

“Frankly, everyone knew this day would come,” Lyons said. “We had been hoping for an earlier decision and a later transition date, but we’re relieved to finally have some firm information. With all the doubt over what to do and when to do it, the wireless marketplace has been in limbo for the past several years. So we’re pleased to finally have a firm date from the commission. It now makes it possible to communicate clearly with our customers.”

The message from the FCC is clear: If you are operating in the 700MHz band, plan to transition to new wireless frequencies immediately. To help determine if your equipment is affected, there is a new FCC Web site on wireless microphones. The site explains the new 700MHz ruling and includes a listing of all equipment scheduled to become illegal June 12, along with a clearly stated FAQ section, access to commission documents and links to all major wireless manufacturer Web sites.

The FCC site lists wireless model numbers and, more importantly, where to find them. However, people would be well-advised to check with the manufacturer if there is any doubt. For instance, it has been pointed out that a few products appear to be in a gray area, with both legal and illegal frequencies onboard. However, the FCC listing clearly states that such products must be abandoned as well.

Shure has set up its own Web site, which includes a full summary of the situation for its products and customers. The company has is extending its 700MHz rebate/exchange program through June 30 to ease the transition. In that program, customers who return any 700MHz system and buy a new Shure wireless system are extended a rebate based on the product’s age and value. Shure sends all exchanged products directly to a contracted EPA-approved electronics recycling firm to ensure that all glass, metals and plastics are reclaimed and reused. “Nothing goes to a landfill,” Lyons said. “We’ve been doing this for several years, so Shure already has the infrastructure in place to ensure that returned products are properly recycled.”

Most wireless manufacturers stopped selling 700MHz gear in anticipation of this situation. For instance, Shure stopped selling any products in that band in 2007. However, a large installed base of legacy equipment continues to operate on a daily basis in boardrooms, churches, performing arts centers, broadcast facilities, schools, etc. Such users may be unaware of the transition date and need to be notified.

Now, the FCC has added another wrinkle to the equation. Because the new licensees, which include public safety agencies and 4G cellular carriers, within the 700MHz band are already starting to use the spectrum they gained title to last June 13, it’s possible that users in some major markets will be required to stop using the 700MHz band even sooner. In essence, the FCC has said, if a wireless mic user receives a letter from one of the new license holders, they can be asked to vacate that bandwidth even sooner, with 60 days of notification. At this time, the cities where this situation may occur have not yet been clearly identified.

Shure also anticipates that the specter of wireless microphone licensing will be revisited in the near future. “It’s still unclear at this point,” Lyons said, “but it appears that there may be multiple tiers of wireless users in the future, some of which will be licensed in order to get protection from interference, or perhaps all wireless users will have to be licensed. All that is yet to be determined. In the meantime, our mission is to really encourage people to get their old 700MHz systems off the streets.”

The FCC has stated that, probably in the next few weeks, it will open a 30-day comment period on the topic of wireless mics. Shure is encouraging all wireless users to get involved. “The commission wants to know how people use wireless systems, why they are important to them, and that’s going to be essential in determining what kinds of user groups need to be recognized,” Lyons said. “For some people, wireless systems are a necessary professional tool. For others, they are more of a convenience. It seems pretty clear that the FCC now acknowledges what a wide range of users are out there, which really wasn’t the case even a few years ago. So we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Unfortunately, the world’s ever-growing need for bandwidth continues, and it seems the need for vigilance will be ongoing. The broadcast spectrum and its related white spaces are still being targeted by large telecommunications and electronics companies, and the current administration is open to their claims of economic benefits accruing from a change in how spectrum is allocated. The FCC seems clearly committed to meeting the needs of wireless mic systems, but last year’s Report and Order is not written in stone. It is the responsibility of all wireless users (not just the manufacturers) to make those needs know to the FCC. The wheels of government may seem to turn slowly, but they are always moving.