This post, written by Gary Parks, was originally published on the Church Production website. It has been edited for the ClarkPowell blog.
The FCC’s incentive auction of a large swath of spectrum in the 600 MHz band is old news already. Yet its results are now in play, and if you haven’t already begun transitioning your wireless microphones out of the frequencies between 614-698 MHz, it’s time to get moving. Those new broadband services are already being put in place, and you’ll need replacement systems operating between 470-608 MHz, 2.4 GHz, or in the VHF range. Think back to the actions you may have taken around the 700 MHz clearing just a few years back; you have to do it again.
In a nutshell, most of that affected wireless spectrum in the U.S. has been sold to mobile broadband and similar carriers for their exclusive use, meaning that no one else may broadcast radio signals to potentially interfere with their services. The clock began ticking last spring on the 39-month transition period to clear the spectrum, and it’s not a given that you have that entire period to react. If the purchasers start using a particular band in your area earlier, you must stop using your competing devices.
Importantly, T-Mobile – a major purchaser of that 600-MHz spectrum throughout the U.S. – is already deploying and testing its new system using those frequencies in many markets. If you’re using wireless microphone systems (or in-ear monitors or intercoms) in the specific frequency bands in which they are deploying in your area, their new services legally have priority and you are obligated to stop your transmissions – with hefty fines for non-compliance. Not to mention that the stronger signals from these 600-MHz broadband services might begin to cause interference with your Sunday service, so your only recourse is to go to other frequency bands.
A sampling of the long list of markets into which T-Mobile has deployed or will deploy before the end of 2018 includes Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Phoenix, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Wichita, Milwaukee, Providence, Omaha, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Louisville, Spokane, Portland, Denver, North Dakota, North Carolina, Arkansas, New Jersey, Virginia, central Pennsylvania, Dallas, Birmingham, Alabama and many more. The deployments are happening in a number of communities scattered around those cities and regions – not just within the cities themselves. If your area is not on this incomplete list, know that if T-Mobile bought spectrum nearby, they are aggressively rolling out their system in the coming months.
Add to this deployment the recent news that T-Mobile and Sprint have proposed a merger, which could happen in the next year or two. One key asset is that 600-MHz spectrum, which will be used to provide low-band 5G services to their mobile customers. A quote from a T-Mobile press release from late February states that they “plan to build out 5G in 30 cities this year, and customers in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas will be the first to experience it” early next year. Be aware that other groups, such as Dish Network, Comcast, U.S. Cellular, Cellular South, and a number of smaller rural carriers have also purchased spectrum in certain markets – so even in T-Mobile isn’t operating in your area, someone else may begin.
Also, broadcasters who must leave their 600 MHz TV channels are being “repacked” in lower UHF or VHF frequency bands across the country, which means that you will need to research where your local stations will be established as you choose wireless equipment to replace any current mics. With a Google search, you can use a phrase like “television repacking database” or similar to track down information about stations in your area, and learn where those former Channel 38 to 51 stations will be moving; you can find one maintained by NAB. This can be helpful in selecting the best frequency bands for those replacement systems.
A Cautionary Transition Tale
The governance committee at your church might push back, asking why the expensive and still serviceable 600-MHz wireless microphones have to be replaced – if they are unable to be tuned to lower frequency bands. Let them know that it is legally required, with an approaching deadline and potential high fines. That the new, likely high-powered services could cause interference and disrupt a sermon if you keep running the equipment illegally after the broadband carriers are operating. Also mention that wireless mic manufacturers currently have incentives to help financially with the transition.
The FCC regulation goes beyond the everyday technology challenge, so consider addressing any concerns with an experienced technology partner. "Getting information directly from the experts can ease your mind and not only help you ensure your technologies are compliant and up to date, but that all your technology projects stay on track," explains ClarkPowell President Susan Pinch. "It's why we host events and forums like our Fusion Technology Expo this July. Attendees have a unique opportunity to have in-depth conversations with some of the best experts in the industry."
One experienced church sound man corresponded with Gary Parks, writer for ChurchProduction.com, over a period of a year. This sound man eventually left his position, partially in frustration that the church board didn’t take the 600 MHz transition seriously. His initial note said they had 12 channels of fairly high-quality wireless operating in the 650 MHz area that had already been in use for over a decade. He had informed his church board that these mics would need to be replaced because the spectrum they worked within would soon become legally unavailable – and that doing it now was best since the clock was ticking and manufacturers were currently offering rebates for trade-ins.
He said the board’s response was “not to discuss the problem now. They feel that they can wait and the price of new equipment will come down and then they will make a purchase.” In a later note, he continued, “They are banking on the FCC not going after a small church. But I know the FCC will go after individuals. So I would think a small church would be a possibility. And why take the chance? I am fighting people on the board that think working a Sound System is pushing some buttons and turning a few knobs and everything is fine.”
Over time Mr. Parks sent more information for the church sound man to pass on to the board, and he eventually replied that the effort would be in someone else’s hands since he had offered his resignation – saying, “They just don't seem to understand that this is not a request, it is the law. I worked hard at this, but I just don't want to spend the time dealing with them anymore.” The “happy ending” to this tale was that after a year of ignoring it, the “wireless mic project” was brought up at a Christmas Eve service and someone agreed to help pay the costs. The former sound engineer said “miracles do happen.” Rather than counting on miracles, we are hoping that other church boards will be more responsive, or at least acknowledge that it must be dealt with.
As was done during 2010’s 700-MHz clearing, many wireless manufacturers are offering rebates to those customers who have invested in equipment that, while still functional, will soon no longer able to be legally used. Some of these programs have been in place for months, and have expiration dates later this year.
Shure’s program goes through October 31, 2018, with rebates up to $500 per channel for their premium Axient Digital and ULX-D systems and lesser amounts for other models – and you can trade in Shure or other brand wireless that operates in the 616 – 698 MHz range. Sennheiser’s rebate began almost a year ago, and is currently scheduled through June 30, 2018. It covers any brand of wireless operating in the affected band. Audio-Technica bills their rebate as “plan now – trade in when necessary”; it has been in place since August 2017 and continues through March 2019. Rebate programs are also available from AKG, Lectrosonics, Samson.
Now Is The Time
Since the clearing of the 600-MHz band was in the proposal stage, manufacturers began designing wireless products to operate in lower UHF bands (as well as in 2.4 GHz and VHF), plus discouraging and discontinuing the sale of products in the affected spectrum. Hopefully, the warnings over the past several years have prompted action, and your task is complete. If not, obtain the commitment and funding now, so that you can gracefully replace these wireless systems before you are forced to do so.
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