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Wireless mic leaders react calmly to FCC broadband plan

While the broadcast industry has indicated its collective dismay at some of the details contained within the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, two of the biggest players in the wireless microphone industry, Shure and Sennheiser, both urge audio professionals to remain calm. Christopher Lyons, Shure’s manager of technical and educational communications, and Joe Ciaudelli, Sennheiser’s director of market development and education, addressed the issue in separate recent communications.

While acknowledging that the proposed reallocation of 120MHz of spectrum space away from broadcast is a cause for concern, both wireless manufacturers pointed out that the plan is, at this point, more of an exploration of ideas and a call for studies on spectrum usage than a concrete proposal. As Ciaudelli said, “the report repeatedly calls for deeper, comprehensive studies on spectrum use. We encourage this, especially since the report focuses on the use of spectrum for distribution of content.”

“Certainly, reclaiming a big chunk of the TV band is worrisome for broadcasters, but this plan is really just a statement of goals and direction,” said Lyons of Shure. “And the timeline in the document — to have everything done by 2015 — seems awfully aggressive to us. Just look at how long it took to get DTV rolled out.”

The two wireless giants agree that the broadband plan’s language does not seem to represent a setback for the operators of wireless microphones. In essence, what the plan does is legitimize broadband penetration as a priority, which means that it will take on increased priority in the future spectrum ecosystem. However, the plan seems to go to great lengths to emphasize that existing users will not be disenfranchised.

A major part of the plan is the call for a full national spectrum inventory as a precursor to any reallocation. Considering that the national wireless database in the broadcast band (basically, below 698MHz) called for in the FCC’s Second Report and Order on the white spaces issue remains unresolved, it may be a bit far-fetched to believe that a full spectrum inventory can be accomplished in the two-year span suggested in the broadband plan.

Once that still-to-be-defined study occurs, the serious discussions will begin. Sennheiser’s Joe Ciaudelli said that the broadband plan focuses squarely on both TV broadcast and wireless microphones in a positive way. “Our view is that any credible study will reveal the high use of spectrum for content creation. The report specifically states, ‘changes to the TB broadcast spectrum on consumers, the public interest, and the various services that share this spectrum, including…wireless microphones.’”

Because the broadband report emphasizes the primacy of content creation and distribution, it seems clear that wireless microphones, like those used in broadcasting, will have some degree of protection once the plan is finalized. Another recent FCC document promotes a return to licensing of wireless mics for certain still-undetermined classes of users. It is assumed that license holders will enjoy protection from unlicensed users through the national white spaces database.

The bottom line is that any further spectrum changes will be a minimum of five years in the future and, given the historic pace of change in these areas, probably longer. In the meantime, the coast is (relatively) clear for wireless microphone and ear monitoring systems, making this the optimal time to upgrade in those areas.

As Chris Lyons of Shure said, “We’ve now gone through this with the DTV transition, and then with the 700 MHz rebanding. We’re now in a time window where professional wireless systems are legal and well defined, and all the manufacturers have product solutions in place. Our goal now is to remind people to replace their old 700MHz systems by June 12, and then continue our support and advocacy for the industry as the FCC explores the broadband issue.”

With declining over-the-air viewership and the future emphasis on broadband communications, it seems clear that the business model for broadcast may be changing. The important thing to remember is that broadband distribution of content will be open to all, which could create new markets for broadcasters who, like wireless manufacturers, adapt to the changing landscape.

One thing that will not change, however, is that content itself remains king. As Joe Ciaudelli said, “The value of the entertainment and news content that is produced in the U.S. is, by far, the highest quality in the world. It is among the few products where we are able to maintain a favorable trade balance. I believe our leaders will be very careful before creating additional obstacles (for) one of our most valuable exports.”