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Sennheiser, Microsoft, Jostle for White Space

WASHINGTON—Both wireless mic and Microsoft folks are staking out claims in the shrinking TV band. Sennheiser’s director of Spectrum Affairs, Joe Ciaudelli, visited the Federal Communications Commission on April 11, urging each of the commissioner’s to “finalize its intent to reserve at least one UHF white-space channel in each market, post-auction repacking.”

Not to be out-lobbied, the Microsoft legal and regulatory team “spoke telephonically with Chairman [Ajit] Pai and Rachel Bender, his acting wireless advisor,” three days later, to chat about its support for network neutrality, its 4,100-miles trans-Atlantic undersea cable project with Facebook (opens in new tab), and “allocating sufficient spectrum for unlicensed broadband use in the 600 MHz and TV bands.”

To be clear, white spaces are unoccupied frequencies, while unlicensed spectrum is exactly that—it requires no hefty licensing fees such as the $19.8 billion paid by wireless providers for TV channels 38-51 in the recently completed incentive auction. Neither does unlicensed spectrum have build-out conditions or specific operational requirements outside of non-interference with licensed operators.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, “discussed the importance of designating at least three unlicensed channels in each market in the 600 MHz and television bands,” for rural broadband as well as ongoing development of white-space technology, which has been commercialized for approximately seven years but has not reached wide deployment. (According to a May 1, 2015 filing submitted by the National Association of Broadcasters, only 600 such devices were operating nationwide five years after FCC authorization.)

Smith said Microsoft and its partners were providing white-space broadband “to the homes of previously unconnected students in rural Southern Virginia. This single project will serve 7,500 primary and secondary school students when the system is fully deployed.”

Before the incentive auction was held, two 6 MHz channels were designated for wireless microphones, which are used in everything from school plays to the Super Bowl, in houses of worship and on Broadway. Auction rules relegated wireless mics to shared buffer zones between wireless up- and downlink bands, as well as vacant TV channels in a given market. The commission subsequently proposed to reserve at least one channel in each market for wireless mics, but no such rule has been finalized.

Generally, advocates of unlicensed spectrum—Microsoft and Google among others—claim there is no need to reserve channels and that white-space technology can play nice with other devices. Wireless mic makers disagree, and the NAB has urged the FCCto clean up the database system devised to prevent interference from white-space devices.

In the ex parte filing describing his meeting with the commissioners, Ciaudelli said, “The duplex gap and the guard band are not reliable enough to operate mission critical microphones. Licensed (FCC Part 74) professional production engineers require clean UHF in their spectrum ‘toolbox’ for their hyper-critical wireless microphones. The reserved white-space channel will be a vital tool, provided it can be reliably reserved by professionals in the database system for interference protection from unlicensed devices.”

Ciaudelli also filed a fact sheet for owners and operators of wireless mics, who will have to retool and/or replace microphones tuned to the repurposed frequencies between 614 and 698 MHz.

“About half of existing UHF wireless microphone equipment will likely be rendered obsolete, or will require modification—if allowed; a decision from the FCC is pending,” it stated.

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