FCC Adopts Wireless Microphone Order, Further Notice

The FCC today unanimously adopted an order on reconsideration revising and clarifying rules to promote wireless microphone operations while proposing to permit professional theater, music, and other venues to get licensed access for wireless mics if certain requirements are met. The order in GN dockets 14-166 and 12-268 and ET docket 14-165 addresses five petitions for reconsideration asking the FCC to revisit decisions it made in two related orders that were adopted in 2015 (TR Daily, Aug. 6 and 11, 2015).

The order revises and clarifies “its rules to promote more effective spectrum access for wireless microphone operations in the TV bands, the repurposed 600 MHz band, and other frequency bands,” a news release noted. “Today’s Order provides revisions and clarifications to certain technical and operational rules (e.g., spurious emissions rules, measurement of emission limits, coordination rules, access to spectrum in certain bands) that promote spectrum access.

“The Further Notice proposes permitting professional theater, music, performing arts, and similar organizations, to obtain licensed access to operate wireless microphones at smaller venues, provided certain requirements (e.g., demonstrated need and requisite professional abilities) are met,” the news release added.

“From the time that the Commission commenced the broadcast incentive auction proceeding, we knew that the wireless mics operating in the TV band were going to present quite a challenge,” Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said. “Post auction, full-power broadcasters would be repacked and all other users of the band would have to do more with less. This led the Commission to initiate a series of inquiries on how we could accommodate the need for wireless mics, including opening up new spectrum bands.

“The Commission also decided that entities using 50 or more mics could obtain licenses and register for interference protection from other unlicensed users. In doing so, it tried to strike a balance between protecting the operations of professional sound companies or venues that have a need for a large number of mics and high-quality sound, and ensuring that spectrum is shared effectively with other licensed mic users and unlicensed use, such as TV white space devices,” he added. “Admittedly, the selection of 50 microphones as a proxy for those users who were likely to require interference protection and high-quality sound never really appeared to be supported by any data. Fifty seemed to be picked because it was reasonable that most large professional events, such as Broadway shows, concerts at the Verizon Center, and the largest sporting events, would need a lot of mics. This is not exactly the best way to make policy. Because this number was not based on solid data, I generally support reopening this issue.”

The Commissioner added, “I do wonder, however, about the possible direction we are headed in the further notice. It proposes that we should replace the objective number-based metric, with a rule that would permit, on a case-by-case basis, certain theater, music, performing arts organizations, and possibly others to obtain a license if they demonstrate a professional need for high-quality mics. I have stated repeatedly that I am not necessarily a fan of case-by-case determinations, because they can leave important decisions to the whims of the Commission or staffer reviewing the request at the time.

“Putting this fundamental concern aside, such an approach also requires a perpetual line drawing exercise that may be quite burdensome,” Mr. O’Rielly said. “Additionally, we must give a lot of thought about how this proposal will affect the other users in the TV and 600 MHz band. Every additional entity that is provided protection means that there may be another wireless mic licensee in the area, such as a broadcaster, cable TV operator or the latest pop star’s concert, that may not be able to reserve the resources it needs. Additionally, it means less spectrum will be available for TV white spaces, something we have heard quite about recently for good reason.”

He said he “will support the reconsideration of this issue, especially since questions were added, at my request, that will elicit a dialogue on some of these various issues. Additionally, a paragraph was added seeking comment on alternatives to the proposed case-by-case approach. I thank the Chairman for taking my concerns into consideration.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that “we recognize that there are certain small professional theaters, music, and performing arts or similar organizations (especially in rural areas) that have the same needs for interference protection as existing wireless microphone licensees, but that don’t meet our current license requirements.  So we propose in the Further Notice a limited expansion of licensee eligibility based on a user’s demonstrated need for and capability of providing high-quality audio during productions, regardless of the number of mics that user typically employs.

“Here’s how this would work.  Imagine that a small professional theater decides to put on a production of the hit show Hamilton.  But the performance only requires the use of 30 wireless microphones.  Under our current rules, this theater couldn’t get interference protection from white space devices operating in the same bands, so the actors’ carefully crafted performance could be interrupted by a competing unlicensed device.  Not only would this affect the consumer experience, but Alexander Hamilton would risk ‘throwing away [his] shot!’  Our limited expansion would accommodate the needs of wireless mic users like this one,” Mr. Pai said.

Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said the order “addresses many of the issues raised in petitions for reconsideration of two 2015 orders. The technical revisions and clarifications made in this Order will provide manufacturers much-needed certainty as they continue to bring products to market. Moreover, in the Further Notice the Commission recognizes that certain unlicensed wireless mic users that are not eligible for a Part 74 license, may nonetheless have a need for interference protection at their events. Accordingly, we seek comment on how best to accommodate the needs of these users.”

Microsoft Corp. had objected to the further notice, saying the Commission should “not propose to permit an expanded class of wireless microphone users to block wireless broadband operations in White Spaces channels” (TR Daily, July 10).  The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute said wireless mic operators should have to show that no other channels are available before they can get access to additional spectrum. Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment on the item adopted today, but wireless mic manufacturers applauded it.

“We sincerely applaud the FCC staff for their work and due consideration on this Order and proposed rulemaking,” says Joe Ciaudelli, director of U.S. spectrum affairs for Sennheiser Electronic Corp. “This represents a very positive outcome for our customers and all professional wireless microphone users. Clearly the FCC listened to the needs of the professional production community and worked hard to provide a solution.”

“In the Future Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the Commission states its intention to expand license eligibility, allowing many organizations that stage sophisticated productions but do not qualify for an FCC license under current rules the ability to obtain a license. This was opposed by a mega-sized multi-conglomerate that desires UHF channels for operation of unlicensed white space channels,” Sennheiser said. “Licensed microphone operators are able to reserve channels for interference protection from unlicensed devices when they stage their productions — a vital privilege that will help organizations like high-quality regional theaters ensure smooth, professional wireless audio operation. Sennheiser submitted a timely filing in response to the opposing party to outline these issues while defending the interests of wireless microphone operators, illustrating that the ability to reserve ‘white space’ frequencies for professional wireless use is integral to effective operation of wireless microphone systems in real-world applications.”

“The Commission’s decision today is applauded by the wireless microphone community faced with significant spectrum changes and dislocation brought about by the Incentive Auction and broadcaster repacking, as well as the earlier decisions to eliminate the two UHF wireless microphone reserve channels and unlicensed microphone registration,” said Mark Brunner, vice president-corporate and government relations for Shure, Inc. “The amendments and clarifications eliminate unnecessary roadblocks and provide helpful certainty for our industry.  Shure deeply appreciates the thoughtful and thorough analysis by OET on the technical issues that affect all manufacturers and ultimately microphone users and their audiences.  As mentioned at the meeting, this affects wireless microphones used in theater, music, sports, business conferences, and Houses of Worship, to name just a few daily applications.

“With respect to the Further Notice, we are encouraged that the Commission shares our view that the rules should address the need for interference protection for professional microphone users operating at smaller venues and events that have the same need for high quality interference-free audio as larger more microphone-intensive events,” Mr. Brunner added. “Chairman Pai was spot on in pointing out the example of an important theater production that would be unable to guarantee its operations because it falls short of the required 50 microphone requirement for Part 74 licensing and interference protection.  We are hopeful that the Further Notice will help the Commission craft the right rules that can provide interference protection in those and similar instances.”

CP Communications LLC, which rents wireless production equipment, including wireless mics, to the broadcast, theatrical, and other industries, said, “We haven’t seen the full document yet, so we don’t know all the details, but we are pleased that all three Commissioners are engaged in the issues and are looking for ways to improve the environment for wireless mics.  More and more venues depend on this technology every day.” —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily