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The Incentive Auction and What It Means for Wireless Audio

[Because Shure has been an industry leader in negotiations with the FCC regarding pro audio wireless systems and the auction of spectrum, Mix asked Mark Brunner, Senior Director, Global Brand Management, Shure Incorporated, to chime in on what wireless users need to know.]

The U.S. Federal government’s Incentive Auction of RF spectrum is upon us, which will have significant impact on TV Band wireless microphones, ear monitors and intercoms in the years to come and lead to changes in the way we deploy wireless gear at events large and small. Unlike the 700 MHz Band changes following the completion of the DTV transition, the Incentive Auction’s restructuring of operations in VHF and UHF will roll out city by city in a “patchwork quilt” of changes to TV channel assignments and the arrival of new LTE deployments. Termed the “TV Band Re-pack,” this transition is scheduled to transpire in the 39 months following the completion of the Incentive Auction, which will likely run through the summer months of 2016 and conclude with the Channel Reassignment Public Notice this fall.

What’s the Incentive? TV stations are being offered a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, to participate in a spectrum auction designed to free up TV channels for mobile broadband use. In doing so, stations that decide to go off the air and relinquish their licenses, share channels with other stations, or move to less desirable VHF channels can share in the revenues generated by the auction. Their participation is vital—without volunteers there is not enough spectrum to auction—but because it is confidential, it is also a wildcard in the final restructuring of the Band. The number of volunteers will have a direct impact on the amount of spectrum offered at auction, which will start at the top of today’s TV Band (698 MHz) and move downward. The first visibility wireless microphone operators will have to the future TV Band plan will be the Channel Reassignment Notice.

How Will I Know? While the Notice will reveal the plan, the actual implementation will be a complex exercise and it will vary by city. For wireless microphone users to comply with operating rules, they will need a dashboard of the changes in TV channel assignments and commencement of new LTE operations. The current plan is to reflect these changes in the TV Bands Geolocation Databases, which were created a few years ago to usher in “white space devices” to the TV Band in a sharing arrangement with wireless microphones. To date, very few white space devices have appeared in the field, but the Incentive Auction band plan ensures that adequate spectrum remains for this new technology. The databases are also an important tool for licensed wireless microphone operators to “reserve” vacant TV channels at specific locations and times and effectively “block” white space devices from access to these channels—an important protection from potential interference.

The Benefits of Licensing: Wireless Microphones are classified as a licensed service under Part 74 of the FCC’s rules. Until recently, however, a limited number of entities actually qualified for license eligibility. In anticipation of the increased crowding of the TV Band that will result from the Auction, the FCC amended its eligibility rules for Part 74 wireless microphone licenses to include venues and sound companies that routinely use 50 or more RF channels. This is a significant development for pro audio and will allow an increased number of important productions across the country to reserve channels in the Geolocation Databases and prevent interference. Additionally, the FCC recently identified several other spectrum bands for use by licensed operators, which will help offset the reduction of UHF spectrum after the re-pack. If you are running a venue or campus that meets the criteria, it is time to get a license. If your tour or festival depends on wireless microphones, intercoms and ear monitors, make sure your sound company is licensed. The benefits are significant, and will become increasingly important in the years ahead.

What About My Current Gear? The complexity of the Incentive Auction and re-pack process is unprecedented in the global history of spectrum reallocation, and it has raised several critical issues for “incumbent” operators in the TV Band. Suffice to say, some of today’s wireless microphones operating on frequencies in roughly the 600-700 MHz range will not be legally operable in the years to come. But the new LTE spectrum in UHF will require “guard bands” between the uplink and downlink blocks and to separate their service from the TV stations in the frequencies below. These guard bands are slated for shared use between wireless microphones and white space devices and, in some cases, exclusive use by wireless mics. Manufacturers are working with the FCC to create rules for operation in the guard bands and to ensure that as many products in the field that can comply with the new rules and band plan are able to do so. They are also gearing up to help users through the coming transition, to develop products that take advantage of the newly authorized licensed spectrum bands, to improve spectral efficiency, which increases the number of wireless systems one can operate in limited spectrum, and to create more offerings in unlicensed bands that are unlikely to be targets for auction and reallocation.

The World Is Wireless: If the situation seems complicated, that’s because it is. As more and more of our daily life relies on wireless technology, the job of the FCC and other international regulators gets more challenging. But the benefits of wireless are clear, and they are here to stay—in pro audio and elsewhere. Thankfully, the audio industry established a foothold in wireless years ahead of personal computers, smartphones, and your refrigerator. The trick now is to make room for these services and technologies while allowing the show to go on. Fortunately for our industry, policy makers enjoy a great concert, broadcast event, or theatrical performance as much as anyone else. It is our job to ensure that they continue to understand what it takes behind the scenes to make them happen.

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