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 (PDF), 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! Keep up to date on all electronic media policy action here.

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.

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