FCC Issues Excellent Wireless Microphone Order — Perhaps NAB Will Rely Less on Scare Tactics and Celebrity Letters Now.

Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).

As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.

In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.

Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.

More below . . .

As long time readers may remember, I discover a bit of a housekeeping problem for the 700 MHz band. Back in 2003, when the FCC changed its rules to get everything in shape for the big auction and ultimate changeover, it neglected to set rules to migrate our the “broadcast ancillary services” licensed under Part 74, Subpart H. Or, in plain English, the FCC forgot to move out wireless microphones and a few other low-power devices that work on the broadcast bands.

The problem was further compounded by the fact that for years, the FCC turned a blind eye to the fact that rather than limiting wireless microphones to the relatively small class of eligible licensees (those involved in broadcasting, cable programming, or motion picture production), some wireless microphone manufacturers (notably Shure) and most consumer electronic retailers were actively marketing wireless microphones to folks who had no business using them. As a result, the entire theater industry and performance industry became dependent on intense use of wireless microphones, as did many churches and other large houses of worship, to say nothing of the huge number of business conference centers, karoke bars, and random individuals buying them at places like Radio Shack and Amazon.

This didn’t cause the interference with television that broadcasters kept predicting would happen whenever people proposed expanding the class of users (officially) beyond the limited group of broadcasters and others. Broadcast is a strong signal beaming down to a dumb receiver. A wireless microphone operating on a channel with an active broadcast system will receive interference (that is, you will get the evening news over your sound system) but you are extremely unlikely to interfere with a person watching TV. So everyone was happy to ignore the fact that, by the 2008, there were probably around 1 million unauthorized wireless microphones in use all around the country.

Two things happened to make this situation intolerable. One was the change over to DTV and the reclamation of Channels 52-69 for commercial wireless and public safety uses. Unlike broadcast systems, these systems operate on a cellular architecture. Devices send weak signals to towers and receive weak signals that they must decode. The relatively small signal strength of wireless microphones creates real problems for these systems. To visualize the difference imagine you and your friend at a football game. Your talking doesn’t really make a difference to what everyone else is seeing and hearing because everything else is so loud. No take that same conversation and put it in a library. It bothers lots of people trying to concentrate on their work. Nothing changed between you and your friend, but the change in environment makes a huge difference.

The second thing was the fight to get TV white space devices approved. The wireless microphone people became convinced that the white sapce devices would interfere with their wireless microphones. So they enlisted the help of politically useful constituencies such as Broadway theater groups and mega churches. The problem was, these users were all ineligible for licenses — as fact the Broadway folks simply refused to believe. So they kept on complaining to the FCC and rubbing their noses in the fact that there was massive illegal use of wireless microphones going on that the FCC had ignored for so long that the people using them believed themselves entitled to use them and insisting on doing field tests of white spaces prototypes amid all their illegal use, for gosh sakes.

All these made a couple of facts plain for those of us who cared to look:
(a) The wireless microphone problem had essentially become the equivalent of an oil slick spreading all over the spectrum, with extremely nasty results likely when the 700 MHz auction winners and public safety guys tried to deploy systems.

(b) From a consumer protection side, something needed to be done to protect consumer use of wireless microphones. Wireless microphone use had become “too big to fail.” It was simply not possible to get rid of wireless microphone use, and blatantly unfair to the people who went out and bought them in good faith believing they had every legal right to use them.

Hence our Petition and complaint against wireless microphone manufacturers. PISC took the position that the FCC needed to stop playing around and refusing to address the reality and actually give wireless microphone use by non-eligible parties some real status. And, if someone had to pay to replace all that equipment, it ought to be the wireless microphone guys.

But, of course, the big question was how would the newly legalized wireless microphones play with the soon to be approved (we hoped) white spaces devices. We continue to believe that the two can coexist. The wireless microphone manufacturers (and the Coalition of Wireless Microphone Users (CWMU), which includes the Broadway guys) keep insisting they can’t. We took the position that anyone establishing prior use due to illegal use was not entitled to any protected status. So while we wanted wireless microphones made legal, we also wanted it clear that they had co-equal footing with white space devices.

The NAB, wireless microphone manufacturers, and the CWMU proposed expanding the class of folks eligible for Part 74 licensing to include everyone with enough clout to join the CWMU. Basically, the pitch to the FCC was “take care of those with political pull and cut a deal that gives us the right to an area that excludes wireless microphones (licensed wireless microphone users are eligible for inclusion in the White Space Database, which controls how white space devices operate; at the moment, a licensed wireless microphone system (of which there are less than 1000) gets an ”exclusion zone” by registering in the database where white space devices cannot operate). We resisted this strenuously.

The FCC ended up siding mostly with us and pushing off the question of expanding the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licensing. The FCC used its power to give everyone who has an existing wireless microphone legal status by giving waivers under the existing Part 15 rules (the rules that govern unlicensed use of low-power wireless devices, like wifi routers). That puts them on equal footing with white space devices. But the FCC also launched a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to examine whether or not to expand the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licenses. In doing so, the Commission also asks what impact this would have on white spaces devices, and efforts to manage the spectrum generally.

In other words, the Commission has taken care of the immediate crisis, and will now resolve the bigger question about how wireless microphones and white space devices fit in to the question of data-driven and efficient spectrum management that recognizes value in both traditional services and new broadband services.

I can definitely live with that. In fact, I look forward to it. Hopefully, as my opposite numbers on net neutrality like to say, everyone will take this as an opportunity to scale back the rhetoric and try to work together to resolve real issues based on sound engineering analysis.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Stay tuned . . . .

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5 Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    The evil nasty in me wants a licensed device with me when I visit theaters. While I love theater I hate theater management, having worked in professional theater for years.

  2. Henry Cohen says:

    “Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity
    ?star power?.”

    This is a rather ironic statement coming from this blog. For well over a year, I’ve been admonishing you for putting forth arguments for WSD/TVBDs that had everything *but* engineering validity behind them.
    http://www.wetmachine.com/i
    http://www.wetmachine.com/i
    http://www.wetmachine.com/i
    http://www.wetmachine.com/i

    So, in the interest of sound engineering, let’s review some of your statements . . .

    “As long time readers may remember, I discover a bit of a housekeeping problem for the 700 MHz band. Back in 2003, when the FCC changed its rules to get everything in shape for the big auction and ultimate changeover, it neglected to set rules to migrate our the ?broadcast ancillary services? licensed under Part 74, Subpart H. Or, in plain English, the FCC forgot to move out wireless microphones and a few other low-power devices that work on the broadcast bands.”

    What of the thousand or so LPTV, boosters and translators still active in the 700MHz band that wasn’t covered in 10-16? Are these not an issue?
    http://www.fcc.gov/fcc-bin/

    “This didn’t cause the interference with television that broadcasters kept predicting would happen whenever people proposed expanding the class of users (officially) beyond the limited group of broadcasters and others. Broadcast is a strong signal beaming down to a dumb receiver. A wireless microphone operating on a channel with an active broadcast system will receive interference (that is, you will get the
    evening news over your sound system) but you are extremely unlikely to interfere with a person watching TV. So everyone was happy to ignore the fact that . . ”

    But what you’re not mentioning is the vast majority of wireless mics are proactively tuned to operate in unoccupied TV channels and are generally not operating in or near areas with OTA television reception. Further, as wireless mics are narrowband (relatively) devices when compared to even analog NTSC transmissions, and certainly relative to ATSC digital, the chance of a wireless mic causiing interference is quite small. Finally, the shear numbers make interference to licensed services (Parts 73, 74 or 90) very small: Only about 750,000 to a million channels of wireless mics are active in the US. Compare that to the number of cellular/PCS subscribers in the US, about 270 million as of 2008.
    (https://www.cia.gov/library…)

    “Two things happened to make this situation intolerable. One was the change over to DTV and the reclamation of Channels 52-69 for commercial wireless and public safety uses. Unlike broadcast systems, these systems operate on a cellular architecture. Devices send weak signals to towers and receive weak signals that they must decode.”

    Few public safety systems are designed with a cellular architecture, mostly due to less geographical coverage roaming requirements, expense and complexity. Most large systems are either broken up into sub-systems mostly operating independently, or as a receive-voting system (multiple receive only sites) with only one or two transmission locations. Most portables are in the 3-5 watt range (as opposed to a maximum of 600mW for cellular handsets) and transmission site power levels are hundreds or thousands of watts located at high AGL/HAAT, significantly more than the vast majority of cell cites.

    cont’d . . .

  3. Henry Cohen says:

    “. . . and insisting on doing field tests of white spaces prototypes amid all their illegal use, for gosh sakes.”

    What was wrong with this? Testing and experimenting is part of good engineering. And by the way, it was not the illegal users who insisted on testing, rather it was the manufacturers and the legal Part 74 users, both those represented by MSTV and NAB as well as individual entities/persons.

    “All these made a couple of facts plain for those of us who cared to look:
    (a) The wireless microphone problem had essentially become the equivalent of an oil slick spreading all over the spectrum, with extremely nasty results likely when the 700 MHz auction winners and public safety guys tried to deploy systems.”

    Although there are certainly conditions under which wireless mics could have caused interference, it would have been far more likely (and was as some users have experienced with MediaFlo and Verizon LTE deployments) that the wireless mics would have suffered interference first during testing phases and would have migrated out by the time any new 700MHz system became fully operational. And don’t use the V-Comm comment as an example: they never fully explained in engineering terms the conditions under which the inteference took place, and it was only a field test. Further, that was over a year ago, with just about all the 700MHz wireless mics now gone from the properties on the strip.

    “(b) From a consumer protection side, something needed to be done to protect consumer use of wireless microphones. Wireless microphone use had become ?too big to fail.? It was simply not possible to get rid of wireless microphone use, and blatantly unfair to the people who went out and bought them in good faith believing they had every legal right to use them.

    Hence our Petition and complaint against wireless microphone manufacturers. PISC took the position that the FCC needed to stop playing around and refusing to address the reality and actually give wireless microphone use by non-eligible parties some real status.”

    With this I mostly agree.

    “But, of course, the big question was how would the newly legalized wireless microphones play with the soon to be approved (we hoped) white spaces devices. We continue to believe that the two can coexist. The wireless microphone manufacturers (and the Coalition of Wireless Microphone Users (CWMU), which includes the Broadway guys) keep insisting they can’t.”

    Wrong. We are not saying they can’t co-exist in absolute terms. We are simply saying that due to the physics of RF, minimum spatial separations must be maintained based on power levels and antenna HAAT. BTW, the CWMU also counts among its membership several Part 73 broadcasters and cable operations.

    “We took the position that anyone establishing prior use due to illegal use was not entitled to any protected status. So while we wanted wireless microphones made legal, we also wanted it clear that they had co-equal footing with white space devices.”

    I understand your policy thinking goal, but if one desires to maintain the operational performance reliability and characteristics of wireless mics, co-equal status won’t work.
    “The relatively small signal strength of wireless microphones creates real problems for these systems.”

    It *could* cause problems under the right set of circumstances, which to date have been virtually non-existent in the other band (470-512MHz) where Part 74 and 90 operations share spectrum in the 13 MEAs for the past 30 years.

    cont’d . . .

  4. Henry Cohen says:

    “To visualize the difference imagine you and your friend at a football game. Your talking doesn’t really make a difference to what everyone else is seeing and hearing because everything else is so loud. No take that same conversation and put it in a library. It bothers lots of people trying to concentrate on their work. Nothing changed between you and your friend, but the change in environment makes a huge difference.”

    Good analogy.

    “The second thing was the fight to get TV white space devices approved. The wireless microphone people became convinced that the white sapce (sic) devices would interfere with their wireless microphones. So they enlisted the help of politically useful constituencies such as Broadway theater groups and mega churches.”

    The wireless microphone people became convinced of the interference potential because of a knowledge of the physics behind RF propagation, a knowledge of the interaction of various co-channel modulation schemes, modeling and simulated tests. Good engineering practices – just as you desire.

    “The problem was, these users were all ineligible for licenses? as fact the Broadway folks simply refused to believe.So they kept on complaining to the FCC and rubbing their noses in the fact that there was massive illegal use of wireless microphones going on that the FCC had ignored for so long that the people using them believed themselves entitled to use them . . .”

    Engineering has nothing to do with legal standing. Interference will exist whether or not a transmitter license is granted. A bullet injures/kills whether fired from a licensed handgun or an unlicensed one. It is agreed however the proliferation of non Part 74 eligible – illegal – users is (was?) a real problem on a number of levels, but I think it foolhardy to suggest none of this use has since become a value to the public good at large. BTW, the Broadway community never refused to believe its illegal status; some may not have understood the regulations, but once explained, they believed and understood.

    “The NAB, wireless microphone manufacturers, and the CWMU proposed expanding the class of folks eligible for Part 74 licensing to include
    everyone with enough clout to join the CWMU.”

    Having been in a number of meetings separately with the FCC and white space proponents, I can say with absolute certainty the idea of a “privileged” class of [currently illegal] wireless microphone users to get protection was *not* the idea of NAB or CWMU; it came from a leading white space technical adviser who acknowledged the importance of wireless mic uses not currently covered aby Part 74, but felt not all users were entitled to protection. The attorney accompanying the technical advisor and representing said white space proponents did not offer or imply any opposing indication.

    “The FCC ended up siding mostly with us and pushing off the question of expanding the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licensing. The FCC
    used its power to give everyone who has an existing wireless microphone legal status by giving waivers under the existing Part 15 rules (the rules that govern unlicensed use of low-power wireless devices, like wifi routers). That puts them on equal footing with
    white space devices. But the FCC also launched a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to examine whether or not to expand the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licenses. In doing so, the Commission also asks what impact this would have on white spaces devices, and efforts to manage the spectrum generally.”

    Actually, I tend to think 10-16 “sided” with both concerns pretty fairly (no one was completely happy). But hey, if you want to call it a ‘win’ for your side, go for it.

    “Hopefully . . . everyone will take this as an opportunity to scale back the rhetoric and try to work together to resolve real issues based on sound
    engineering analysis.”

    I’d personally welcome it tremendously if you’d start approaching this issue from an engineering perspective.

    Henry Cohen
    Production Radio Rentals

  5. Rich B says:

    As a sometimes-user of wireless mics I appreciate the ongoing Harold-Henry debate.

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