FCC Action on Wireless Microphones

The League is directly representing orchestras in order to protect their right to interference-free use of wireless microphones and other essential equipment as parts of the broadcast spectrum are auctioned off for other purposes.

On Thursday, July 13, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to revise and clarify rules for wireless microphone operations in the TV broadcast spectrum. The proposed action would permit “certain qualifying theatre, music, performing arts organizations, and similar organizations" to obtain Part 74 licenses that would allow them to register their frequencies in a database that would provide interference protection based on the applicant’s demonstrated need and requisite professional ability to operate in the bands, even if they routinely use fewer than 50 wireless microphones.

In response to the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the League has joined in submitting comments, as part of the Performing Arts Wireless Microphone Working Group, in support of expanding eligibility for Part 74 licenses, In the coming weeks, the Performing Arts Alliance and its Member Organizations will seek Comments from the field to amplify this request and better inform the FCC about wireless device usage by the performing arts throughout the country. Please stay tuned for action needed soon! You can read the full announcement about the FCC's proposal here on its website, and keep up to date on all electronic media policy action here.

Important upcoming changes relating to the FCC’s “incentive auction” (see BACKGROUND for more details):

  • Wireless microphones will be directly affected by the FCC’s incentive auction of TV spectrum. Depending on one’s location, performing arts organizations may not be able to continue using current channels and equipment. The FCC has released a spreadsheet of the channels that will be occupied by TV stations following the further adjustment of spectrum. A station’s current channel is in the PC column; it will move to the channel in the “Ch” column. Be advised that users of the “white space” between TV channels will need to know not only which channels they are currently using, but which channels will be occupied by nearby TV stations, as this will likely cause interference.
  • This spectrum transition, called “repacking,” will be completed in ten phases, which means there is no single deadline. Instead, this document lists the phase for each transitioning station and the Phase Completion Date, which is the last possible date for that Phase. These completion dates range from 11/30/2018 for Phase 1 stations to 7/3/2020 for Phase 10 stations. Be advised that if TV stations are ready to transition sooner, they might do so.

BACKGROUND: For 35 years, wireless microphone technology has facilitated users’ unrestricted on-stage movement and helped to create sophisticated sound. Nonprofit performing arts organizations and schools have relied on this equipment, which currently operates within the “white space” frequencies between broadcast channels of the television band. Wireless systems are also integral to backstage communications used by stagehands—interference to these backstage communications could compromise the safety of performers, technicians, and audiences. Many sound systems for hearing-impaired patrons also rely on wireless technology operating in these white spaces.

The FCC ruled in 2010 that portions of the white space broadcast spectrum would be shared by wireless microphones and new “white space devices” (aka TV-band devices) such as PDAs, cordless phones, and laptops. In order to implement the rule, the FCC ordered several protection measures, including the establishment of a geo-location database which would allow the new devices and wireless microphones to share spectrum without interference. Several other interference protection measures had been put in place, but all except the database have since been eliminated.

In 2012, the FCC began work to transition spectrum from TV broadcasting to wireless broadband through spectrum auctions. In 2014, for the first time, the FCC allowed a limited expansion of Part 74 licensing, which permits registration in the database, to performing arts entities. Until then, only broadcasters, cable companies, and movie studios were eligible for this type of license. Venue owners and operators and sound companies that routinely use 50 or more devices per event became eligible for a license.

However, the vast majority of nonprofit performing arts venues in the United States use fewer than 50 devices. In 2015, the FCC eliminated the ability of unlicensed wireless microphones to access the database, thereby leaving this equipment without interference protection from TV-band devices.

In 2016, the FCC held an “incentive auction” designed to repurpose spectrum for new uses. This auction made “low-band” airwaves available for wireless broadband, which will lay the groundwork for “fifth generation” (5G) wireless services and applications, but brings with it ramifications for wireless microphone operators. The auction formally closed on April 13, 2017 and the FCC began a 39-month period for some TV stations to transition to new channels.