Revisit All Your Mic and Communications Installs: FCC Auctions Could Kill Them

The latest FCC spectrum auction and T-Mobile win could cause trouble for wireless microphone devices in the 600 MHz band.

Fred Harding
Revisit All Your Mic and Communications Installs: FCC Auctions Could Kill Them

T-Mobile could utilize its new 600 MHz spectrum allocation at any time, rendering many wireless mics and communications devices worthless ... and making owners pay for using their space.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about the impact that the FCC had on wireless microphones. The long and short of it was, simply, that the FCC had sold the right to use devices to the highest bidder, and that wireless microphones and other devices that operated in that range had to cease and desist operation.

There was an appropriate amount of grumbling in response, but ultimately, end users either complied or stopped using their wireless devices.

The FCC staged a second frequency auction last April, this time selling off the 600 MHz band to assorted highest bidders. If you like to split hairs, the frequencies that were auctioned were from 616 to 853 MHz and 663 to 698 MHz. In addition to wireless microphones, selected UHF TV channels will need to move to a different frequency.

T-Mobile could clobber wireless devices

What does this mean? One of the high bidders was the cell phone service supplier T-Mobile. They intend on moving their services, in part, down the frequency band so they can offer faster or more data services. One group will be for mobile service downlinking, and the other is for uplinking.

Currently, there aren’t any cell phones on the market at this moment that take advantage of this new service. But, the contract with the FCC said that the current users had to be out within three years, or until the new owners decided they wanted to play in their new radio wave property.

What worked fine last week will stop, because there’s a much stronger signal operating in the same band.

Now T-Mobile has announced that they are rolling out modifications to their existing network of towers to support the new, lower frequencies; fact is, the change could come as soon as today, tomorrow or yesterday, and you’ll have a problem.

The problem is multi-fold. First, it’s against the law to operate in that range if the new owner is in the range.

Second, your wireless microphone or in-ear monitoring system won’t work. What worked fine last week will stop, because there’s a much stronger signal operating in the same band.

Cell phone service providers are fairly savvy, and if their customers are having difficulty using their product, they tend to figure out quickly what the issue is at an engineering level. Since the frequencies are in the UHF spectrum, technology that’s existed for decades can be used to find the source of the interference.

Once they find the user of the device, they can expect a per channel, per day fine.

What does a informed installer do now?

First, installers should make a habit of looking at every wireless microphone they encounter, whether they installed it, or it was installed by Joe’s House of Wireless Microphones. It’s comparatively simple to know what frequency the microphone is operating on; you look for a label on the back of the receiving base, or you take a look at the sticker inside the battery compartment of the transmitter.

If you find one, and you probably will if you look long enough, let the customer know they have a problem looming.

Many of the microphone manufacturers are providing rebates or trade ins so that the microphone can be replaced. That’s nice, because you aren’t offering a discount, yet your customer lowers their cost of ownership.

Note that many of the rebates are not set to go on forever; Shure, for example, has an offer through April 30, 2018. Other manufacturers may well offer similar programs.

The rebates may vary, but essentially, to qualify, you sell a new wireless system to your customer before the deadline. They complete a form, snip a bar code, and mail the old wireless microphone system to the appropriate address, and watch their mail box. In Shure’s case, they offer rebates even though the microphone may not be a Shure; check for details with the manufacturer of your choice.