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FCC FAQ: Questions My Pastoral Staff Wants Answered

Even with the recent auction, there are a few options available, particularly taking advantage of wireless system replacement or exchange programs.

When I told my pastoral staff that the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, had recently completed an auction in April to sell some of the wireless spectrum used by our wireless microphone systems at Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, their reaction was somewhere between panic and apathy. It’s a complicated-sounding, nerdy sort of problem, one that I needed to translate into simple English to them.

A popular alternative is going with equipment that operates in the frequencies over 900 MHz in the band. These are above the UHF spectrum.

Here are the top questions we discussed:

Why is this happening?

Basically, the government wants to make it easy for internet and cellphone businesses to continue to grow and improve. The FCC regulates the airwaves, and sees more increased use of the spectrum, in giving some bandwidth used by audio equipment to these other uses.

Does that affect us?

While the exact frequency range is still being settled through the FCC process, it will affect any wireless microphones, in-ear monitors, intercoms and other equipment currently capable of operating in the 600 MHz band, considered the upper UHF range above TV channel 36. Spectrum will continue to be available, despite the auction, for those running wireless systems that operate below 608 MHz.

Does this mean all our equipment will stop working?

Not exactly.

While the mics will still work if they are in this range, it will become illegal to use them.

They also may interfere with other devices that received permission to use that space following the auctioning of that portion of the wireless spectrum. But interference can go both ways: If most of that space does wind up reserved for personal mobile devices, you probably won’t want your mics anywhere near that range to avoid disruptions from them. In my church, we conservatively estimate we have one mobile device entering for every two people, and that could mean a lot of competition for the radio waves.

Is this a good time to panic? We just upgraded the system last year!

Stay calm. There are a few options here. Some manufacturers are offering replacement or exchange programs. Others will take your recently purchased equipment and replace the radios, updating them into new frequencies that steer clear from those that will be impacted by thechanges. If you have older equipment, the changes do not go into effect until July 2020, meaning you have the better part of three years to prepare.

Well, that’s obnoxious. How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Yes, it is annoying. The popular alternative is going with equipment that operates in the frequencies over 900 MHz in the band. These are above the UHF spectrum, so some people feel this is far enough removed to avoid being auctioned away by the FCC in the future.

Professionals are still using equipment in the lower UHF bands, like the 500 MHz range. Most of the audio system manufacturers are pushing to maintain keeping the UHF range available, because they recognize that it is such a good range for microphones.

If I need to buy new equipment, how am I supposed to be sure I’m not buying the soon-to-be-outdated version?

The FCC requires as part of this ruling that a prominent label appear on any new affected equipment. Most manufacturers were already offering several bands for each unit, since different areas already need different bands, so finding quality options should be easy. Using authorized dealers with good reputations will also help you navigate problems.

If you are more of a risk-taker and well informed on what to look for, you might be able to get a pretty good deal on used equipment ... with a very short shelf life. Just make sure to get the details and don’t assume the seller knows the FCC ruling better than you.

So that’s it? It’s a done deal?

Even with the auction having happened, small changes are happening all the time before we reach the end of the 600 MHz spectrum in 2020. The FCC built in review and reconsideration periods to make sure the order does more good for business than harm. The original auction ruling also included lower UHF spectrum, but has been reconsidered.

A ruling only a few weeks ago now allows manufacturers to change the radios as a repair, instead of only selling complete replacement units, which is a great way to save equipment from premature obsolescence.

There are many other "nerd details" a pastor might not need to know that are changing as well.

Serious broadcasters and audio techs should seek out the full FCC ruling and set up a news alert for new changes or special offers and announcements from manufacturers.

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