FCC Backs More Unlicensed Use of TV, 600 MHz Bands

The Federal Communications Commission on Sept. 30 announced proposals to modify its Part 15 rules affecting the use of unlicensed wireless devices ahead of the spectrum incentive auction expected to take place around the middle of next year. Following the incentive auction, with the repacking of the television band and the repurposing of current television spectrum for wireless services, fewer frequencies in the UHF band will be available for use by unlicensed fixed and personal/portable White Space devices and wireless microphones.

The FCC commented in a statement, “The proposed changes to Part 15 rules are designed to allow for more robust service and efficient spectral use in the frequency bands that are now and will continue to be allocated and assigned to broadcast television services, while continuing to protect authorized users from harmful interference.”

The 600 MHz Band Plan covered in the Incentive Auction Report and Order also provides new opportunities for unlicensed White Space devices in the repurposed 600 MHz band guard bands and channel 37. The Notice also proposes and seeks comment on rules to permit those operations, while protecting authorized licensed services from harmful interference.

However, the proposed rule changes, which seek to outline the post-auction landscape in which both licensed and unlicensed wireless users will share remaining UHF spectrum, could further constrict available spectrum reserved for professional wireless users while potentially favoring commercial developers of unlicensed wireless spectrum.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler addressed professional wireless-microphone users pointedly in a separate comment, in which he stated, “We are exploring how best to address the needs of wireless microphone users over the long term, while encouraging development of technologies that will better facilitate sharing with other wireless uses in an increasingly crowded spectral environment.”

He went on to state that the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) recognizes the importance of sharing spectrum resources, adding, in a phrase certain to resonate with broadcasters and live-event producers, “even when such sharing may not be entirely comfortable — or easy — for incumbent users.”

Manufacturers of wireless microphone systems used by sports and other live broadcasters have responded cautiously.

“We are pleased that the Commission appreciates the importance and ubiquitous nature of wireless mics in U.S. society,” Joe Ciaudelli, who manages spectrum affairs at Sennheiser, said in a written response to the NPRM announcement. “We applaud their goal to issue an order before the commencement of the incentive auction to address the long-term needs of mic operators.”

However, he continued, “Mic operation in the 600 MHz guard bands will be useful for some less critical operations but will not provide the quality and reliability needed for professional recording and broadcast of spontaneous news and high-end live events. Some of these are viewed by millions. Some, such as hurricane and tornado alerts, have public-safety consequences that make reliability paramount. Unplanned broadcasts often occur in challenging environments and circumstances that require the propagation characteristics of UHF and do not allow for a second ‘take.’”

Jackie Green, VP of R&D/engineering, Audio-Technica, said that some of the comments and suggestions in the two NPRMs seem to indicate that the FCC may not have a firm grasp of the issues that professional wireless users face as spectrum is reduced.

“They seem confused,” she said, citing a comment about possible abuse of the database-registration system. “Due to a lack of White Space devices on the market, some wireless-microphone users do not bother to register their actual spectrum requirements in the database. This seems to have caused confusion or a misperception on the part of the FCC as to exactly how much spectrum is required and when and where it is required. It makes the few users who do register stand out. I’m certain that anyone who actually did register a wireless microphone did so in an act of good-faith compliance. It would help if all users would register in order to give a better view of the need for wireless-microphone spectrum. Also, we need to recognize that, even with knowledge of spectrum demands, the FCC can only do so much. It may be time to take our case directly to Congress.”

Mark Brunner, senior director of global brand management, Shure, pointed to the uncertainty of the outcome of the auctions, for which the economic and spectral outcomes will be based on the number of broadcasters willing to put their spectrum up for auction — an unknowable quantity now — and how the NPRM can alleviate some of that uncertainty.

“This is a consideration of possibilities of how unlicensed wireless operators will be regulated within the UHF band,” he explained. “It’s in the interest of everyone to reduce the ambiguity of who will operate where and under what rules.” That, he said, could lead to higher auction values for the spectrum being offered, bringing in more revenue for the U.S. Treasury. The key for manufacturers, he added, is the need to find ways to more efficiently use what spectrum is left: “And that’s something we’re doing.”