Wireless microphones – lost in the white spaces

After several years of proposals, discussion and testing, the FCC has finally “decided to decide” the fate of the UHF spectrum being vacated by analog TV stations on Feb. 17, 2009. Readers of this newsletter are well aware that this issue pitted broadcasters and wireless microphone manufacturers as incumbent users against a consortium of powerful technology companies, notably Google, Microsoft, Philips and Motorola.

Now that Chairman Kevin Martin and the commission elected to open the airwaves to a presumed new generation of hi-tech devices, let’s take an informal trip down memory lane to look at how the lobbying efforts on this issue may (or may not) have influenced the outcome. Wireless microphone manufacturer Shure was the first to be heavily involved — and for good reason. Early docket descriptions of the issues by the FCC didn’t so much as mention wireless mics as incumbent devices worthy of consideration. (In this context, “wireless microphone systems” include guitar wireless, in-ear monitors, camera-hop systems, intercoms and IFB systems.) Other wireless mic manufacturers got involved later, but it was clearly Shure that carried the water for the industry.

These (generally analog) RF systems have always existed in a sort of legal limbo, technically requiring a license to operate but in reality benefiting from a policy of benign neglect by the FCC. In short, as long as the manufacturers could design products that didn’t interfere with broadcast TV and public safety communications, the commission would look the other way, allowing sales to technically unqualified users like rock bands, churches and corporations to proceed unabated. As a result, wireless microphone sales went through the roof beginning in the mid-1990s, creating a huge user base that, in effect, became an entitlement class without legal standing.

When the FCC issued its mandate that TV broadcasters all switch to digital transmission by February 2009, it became clear that an accompanying realignment of the spectrum would also be considered. And because dedicated spectrum is, in essence, a license to print money, the land grab was on.

For wireless mic manufacturers, involvement in the FCC proceedings was simply to ensure that their devices would be considered as legitimate incumbent users and, thus, a class worthy of the right of continuous usage — and, obviously, continued sales. The early lobbying effort was a lonely one for Shure. But over time, the company succeeded in raising awareness among several key user groups and other manufacturers. Their position was simple and direct: Wireless users exist en masse and should not be disenfranchised by any new allocations — at least not without a soft landing of some sort. Their contention was that there was plenty of spectrum available for all and that hard science should decide the outcome. Ideally, it was hoped that some dedicated spectrum would be assigned or that new devices should be required to detect and avoid wireless mics, allowing enough simultaneous channels for most applications to continue.

Technology firms drooled over the prospect of new, open spectrum, confident that they could engineer devices to whatever specification was required. While the prospect of using this very desirable real estate for unlicensed devices such as broadband Internet access was always expected, Shure’s original intention was simply to ensure that peaceful coexistence would be possible. The FCC seemed to see that as a reasonable request and invited prototype devices to be submitted for testing by the commission’s Office of Engineering and Technology. The failure of the submitted white space device prototypes has been well documented.

It was when the NAB got involved that the discussion on white spaces changed in character. Instead of a reasoned, cooperative “let science decide” vibe, the tone of the discussion changed to one of attack. The broadcasters — always known as a lobbying force to be reckoned with — came down hard against unlicensed devices, mocking and deriding every test failure as proof positive that the consumer electronics industry had no place in the UHF spectrum, while simultaneously painting a doomsday scenario for over-the-air TV reception. Not that these concerns were invalid, but the confrontational, demeaning tone that the NAB took had consequences.

Forced to defend itself, the White Spaces Coalition, a group formed by Microsoft, Google, et al., turned up the heat in response. They worked the think tanks and technology press to bring attention to the issue, deriding the NAB and anyone else who opposed white space devices as enemies of progress and technology while dangling the carrot of free broadband for everyone. Similarly, Shure and its allies, called the Microphone Interests Coalition, along with the NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television, gathered support among concerned users, suggesting that white space devices posed a clear threat to all wireless users along with broadcast TV reception. Within a few short months, the conversation changed from, “Let’s find a way to make this work for everyone,” to, “It’s my way or the highway.”

With the huge economic interests and lobbying power of the broadcasters and multinational technology companies at odds, it soon became clear that the FCC would have to choose sides. And sadly, that meant that “minor” users of the spectrum, like wireless microphones users, became demonized along with everyone else. From an economic perspective, they had no way of competing with the full-throated roar emanating from the primary combatants.

While it has been clear for a few years that FCC Chairman Martin favored accommodating white space devices, his apparent willingness to consider other needs simply eroded in the political battle that enveloped his agency.

The coup de grace came in October. When the U.S. economy crashed, it energized one of the most viable arguments for unlicensed use of the UHF spectrum: the prospect of a new entrepreneurial frontier ripe for development and primed to help the economy get back on its feet in these troubled times. Given the known predilections of the commission, the pressure from the technology lobby and a strong desire to “get ‘er done” before a new administration took office, the case for unlicensed white space devices became a virtual slam-dunk. A late letter-writing spree by a broad assortment of wireless users fell on seemingly deaf ears.

That was the death knell for wireless microphones to gain “legal” status in the new UHF spectrum regime. True, there likely won’t be a “turn off the lights” moment when wireless systems all stop working or become illegal (except in the 700MHz range, prohibited as of 2/17/09). However, the unfortunate side effect of the white spaces debate is that, at best, conventional wireless systems will be forced to compete with white space devices for operating spectrum, with the prospect that, within a few short years, these devices could be as ubiquitous as cell phones. Manufacturers and users of wireless microphones can only hope that the FCC’s certification process will be stringent enough to allow all these systems to coexist.