Another Auction In Store For Broadcasters?

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.

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.

Comments (6)

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Todd Barkes says:

December 15, 2015 at 2:10 pm

When I hear ‘rumors’ such as this, my ears perk up. At the same time, spending as much time as I (and we) do on the Hill, we have the chance to determine (with a great deal of certainty) fact versus fiction. This notion of ‘another auction’ has always been whispered in the background, seemingly with the intent to drive folks to the scheduled auction. The fact is, the FCC has taken the position it is only permitted (and required) to conduct one incentive auction with the repacking protections, including the reimbursement fund and coverage preservation. It has always taken the position that it can conduct other incentive auctions of the broadcast spectrum without those protections, under its general incentive auction authority. As an attorney friend might say…”We have to build out and get a solid business going so nobody wants to sell. If nobody sells, there’s no repacking.”

In closing, my smell test says “RUMOR”…nothing more. (BTW, if you think about the repack and real-world timing, nothing could happen for at least 10 years anyways…)

    Ellen Samrock says:

    December 15, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks, Mark, for bringing some clarity to this article. It’s time for Congress to step in here and initiate a “Preserve Broadcast Television Act” to protect our band from any further incursions by the FCC. Congressmen of all stripes have voiced their support for broadcasters as the incentive auction pushes forward. We need them now to put their vote where their mouth is.

    jerry maffia says:

    December 16, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Mark, There were two statements made regrading 500mHz in this discussion. It is a matter of fact that a well-subscribed scenario for this coming auction would potentially reach well below channel 37 into the 500mHz band. this was pointed out by Jackie Green supported with slides provided by the FCC Auction Task Force. I also made a remark that several commissioners and staff had confided their personal opinion that more re-purposing of the remaining UHF spectrum might come in the future. While this is not currently a matter of policy, it is certainly a subject of discussion within the corridors of the FCC. As you point out this largely depends on whether there is still a viable OTA television business model in the future. We will continue to watch with interest the efforts of yourself and others to figure that out.

Wagner Pereira says:

December 16, 2015 at 7:47 am

So the RF Coordinator for NBC is talking about how many MHz ESPN uses for Monday Night Football…..not how much he uses for Sunday Night Football. What’s wrong with this picture? As he does not state that SNF uses 72 MHz, clearly they must use less – meaning it can be done with less than what ESPN is using.

    jerry maffia says:

    December 16, 2015 at 10:32 am

    These remarks were missatributed in this article to Kevin Parrish of NBC. Most were made by Jeff Willis, the sports production specialist.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    December 16, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    After questioning an old friend of mine about this, the comments about needing 12 TV Channels (or 72MHz) are just WRONG no matter who said them. Who is my old friend? The head of RF Coordination in the Stadiums for the NFL. In facts he tells me there are not 12 TV Channels of Spectrum available in virtually any NFL Stadium today! In terms of mic channels, he tells me perhaps 12 wireless mic channels (where the headsets use 2 of those channels per headset frequency), but that does not even take up 1 TV Channel.