“This is a wake up call, because it’s a truth that we have taken wireless microphone usage for granted, like a free resource.“Kevin Peckham, Training and Special Projects Director, and wireless expert with Full Compass Systems in Madison, WI, grabbed the attention of the room with this statement last month while giving a lecture on the crowded wireless space at the WFX REACH conference in North Carolina and Texas. “As more and more professional and consumer services clamor for space to use wireless devices, it gets tighter and tighter for performers and audio professionals to find a place to use wireless microphones,” says Peckham.
With the massive popularity of cell phones and smartphones, to the growing universe of wireless devices, a very finite spectrum is being stretched to meet the needs of very diverse and competing wireless applications. And that’s why the FCC has put the wheels in motion to execute the ” 2016 UHF Spectrum Auction” later this year, and why the auction is a very important topic for anyone using a wireless technology to understand.
According to CIO magazine, television stations have been offered incentives to sell off 126MHz of “beach front” UHF wireless spectrum after which all TV channels will be tightly packed in the remaining UHF and VHF TV bands. While this spectrum re-assignment will help mobile carriers, it creates grave concerns for wireless technology users. “The F.C.C.-defined spectrum-clearing target of 126 MHz is taking away a huge hunk of the UHF TV band spectrum that has been available for shared use by wireless microphones," warns Peckham.
But that's not even the biggest issue, according to Peckham. "As significant as the loss of that 126 MHz is… of greater concern is the subsequent re-packing of the dislodged TV stations into the remaining lower-frequency portions of the UHF and VHF TV bands. In large urban areas, this space is likely to become a very crowded neighborhood, densely packed with high-power TV.
stations, creating an environment which will likely be unsuitable for Part 15 wireless devices" warns Peckham. “There isn't reason to panic, but we also don’t want people to be caught unaware."While this change is similar to a spectrum shift that took place in 2010, Peckham wants to be sure that wireless users understand that there are significant differences this time around. "This is a much more complex change, with many more moving pieces than what we experienced in the 2010 UHF re-assignment (of the 700 MHz spectrum).
We will not know the critical details until the auction is completed and the resulting TV station re-assignment charts are published. There will be scattered pockets of space in guard bands and potentially some new areas authorized for shared use by wireless microphones, which will help, but it's clear that wireless microphone use will be much less casual in the years ahead,” says Peckham. While using wireless technology may be more challenging in the months ahead, all is certainly not lost.
Manufacturers are working hard to make sure that new wireless mics will work in a crowded spectrum. “The technology is taking big strides. You are already hearing terms such as "spectral efficiency" used to highlight systems which are optimized for tight frequency spacing. There are some very smart new products coming to market, but it is important to understand that different geographical regions will face different challenges."As this issue evolves, Peckham suggests that now is the time to get plugged-in to the information streams on this topic.
Tap into available resources from your companies like Full Compass Systems that have wireless experts on staff keeping pulse of this issue, or manufacturers like Shure, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica and RF Venue. “Take a look at their blogs and chat rooms and subscribe for updates. They are full of excellent technical information, news and advice.” Peckham says it's productive for audio pros to focus on what they will have to workwith, instead of what they are losing. "As with any shared resource in tight supply, knowing how best to make the most of what you have is going to make the difference between operating effectively or just being frustrated.”
Peckham’s last bit of advice for keeping up with the spectrum changes: "These changes are not going to take effect instantly.
We may see them phased in over several years. Take advantage of the lead time we have to learn all you can, and when the deadline approaches to replace or re-tune equipment, you will be prepared to make wise choices."Operating reliably in crowded spectrum will require more education, planning and frequency coordination than most user are accustomed to, but these changes will happen, and users will need to adjust accordingly.
Visitors to the WFX show in Louisville this fall can get a jump on the information by attending Kevin's presentation at the show. "Full Compass recognizes that we need to do all we can to help consumers navigate all of the changes happening, and that's why we are presenting at WFX - to share what we know with our customers and future customers.” Kevin Peckham is an experienced broadcaster and is currently the Training and Special Projects Director at Full Compass Systems. For more information on this and related topics, visit www.fullcompass.com/houseofworship and sign up for email updates.