Contrary to assurances the FCC gave Congress and the broadcast industry since first proposing the TV spectrum auction and repack, wireless mic advocates say, the agency has told parties lobbying to protect wireless mic spectrum that it will likely conduct a future auction to recover more TV spectrum.
Another Auction In Store For Broadcasters?
The big news coming out of the “White Spaces/Wireless Mics: What’s Next?” panel Monday afternoon during the first day of the 2015 NewsTECHForum in New York City may have nothing at all to do with the shortage of wireless mic spectrum for use by news crews and live sports and entertainment producers.
Rather, contrary to assurances the FCC gave Congress and the broadcast industry since first proposing the TV spectrum auction and repack, wireless mic experts on the panel said the agency has told parties lobbying to protect wireless mic spectrum that it will likely come back for more television spectrum in the 500 MHz band.
“Lots of people we talk to at the commission have said, ‘Don’t get too comfortable [with the post auction band plan],’ ” said Roger Charlesworth, executive director of the Sports Video Group DTV Audio Group, who moderated the panel.
Jackie Green, a member of the panel and Audio-Technica’s VP of R&D and engineering, agreed. “They really want us to develop new product, more efficient product, spend money on R&D and get out of the UHF band.”
Currently, wireless mics for ENG use operate on two 6 MHz UHF TV channels, which vary from market to market. Post auction, the commission has set aside 4 MHz of spectrum in the so-called “duplex gap” separating up and downlink cell phone traffic for ENG wireless mic use.
“The FCC’s goal [with the auction] is going to be to raise money by auctioning of what we think is the 600MHz spectrum,” said Green. “But they are going to try to auction off lots of spectrum. They are going to try to get as much as possible.”
If the auction is “very successful” the FCC will target spectrum in the 500 MHz band, she added.
Conducting a heretofore unannounced TV spectrum auction in the 500 MHz band would likely have enormous repercussions. Knowing they would be confined to a tiny part of the UHF band and VHF, many broadcasters may be encouraged to participate in the ongoing spectrum auction when they otherwise planned to take a pass.
Others may rethink future business plans, such as rolling out new mobile TV services enabled one day by the next-gen ATSC 3.0 standard that will be effective only in UHF.
Of course, the focus of the panel wasn’t TV spectrum used for OTA television transmission.
As relates to wireless mic use for newsgathering, the prospects look rather grim. Even the duplex gap where the 4 MHz have been set aside may become overtaxed when it comes to use, as the commission is considering relocating TV stations there as needed — particularly in large markets, Green said.
Allowable power levels in the duplex gap will be significantly lower as well. Current wireless mic power restrictions of 250 mW will be lowered to 20 mW in the gap, she said.
Given the limited spectrum availability for ENG wireless mics, newsgathering will require a new “situational awareness in the field” to coordinate use — even in smaller TV markets where fewer stations compete for resources, said Henry Cohen, senior RF design engineer/project engineer at CP Communications.
Kevin Parrish, a panel member and an NBCUniversal RF engineer, networks news field operations, concurred. The spectrum the FCC has set aside for wireless mic operation “doesn’t replace the tremendous amount of spectrum [currently in use],” he said, adding “spectrum management will become a necessity.”
With wireless mic vendors, broadcasters, sports producers and even the FCC looking for bits and pieces of RF that can be used in portions of spectrum that are remotely located with respect to one another, upper management will likely need to spend more money to equip ENG crews in the field with several different radios, Cohen said.
Addressing the wireless mic spectrum requirements of the sports production community, Parrish pointed to ESPN’s Monday Night Football, which currently uses 12 TV channels.
The spectrum set aside for these types of applications — fully 30 MHz less than today — “will not sustain large events,” he said.
One solution to the crunch will be locating in a relatively uncongested frequency range between 6 GHz and 10 GHz, which Green described as one of “the most open areas of spectrum … in the country.”
“It’s possible using the technological tools we have available to us now to make [a] reasonable wireless [mic system] that works there,” she said.
Technologies, such as new processors, more powerful FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) and lower latency devices, are helping to make this spectrum a usable candidate for wireless mics.
Holding up a wireless phone, Green said: “Look at what’s in this tiny little phone from a technological standpoint. We can use this, these smarts. We can use this technology. I guarantee you Audio Technica is looking at that, and I’m sure Shure, Sennheiser, Lectrosonics and other wireless manufacturers are doing the same thing.”
In releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on what to do with spectrum above 10 GHz last month, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said there is in excess of 12 GHz of available spectrum, Parrish said.
After telling Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel that the broadcast industry would like some of spectrum above 10 GHz for wireless mics, she replied that hundreds of others also want a piece of the pie. “’You better plant your flag quickly,’ ” Parrish reported she said.
“There is a huge opportunity here to grab a chunk of spectrum that will meet the needs of the broadcast industry, but we have to get moving,” he added.
Read all of our NewsTECHForum 2015 coverage here.