Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).
As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.
In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.
Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.
More below . . .
As long time readers may remember, I discover a bit of a housekeeping problem for the 700 MHz band. Back in 2003, when the FCC changed its rules to get everything in shape for the big auction and ultimate changeover, it neglected to set rules to migrate our the “broadcast ancillary services” licensed under Part 74, Subpart H. Or, in plain English, the FCC forgot to move out wireless microphones and a few other low-power devices that work on the broadcast bands.
The problem was further compounded by the fact that for years, the FCC turned a blind eye to the fact that rather than limiting wireless microphones to the relatively small class of eligible licensees (those involved in broadcasting, cable programming, or motion picture production), some wireless microphone manufacturers (notably Shure) and most consumer electronic retailers were actively marketing wireless microphones to folks who had no business using them. As a result, the entire theater industry and performance industry became dependent on intense use of wireless microphones, as did many churches and other large houses of worship, to say nothing of the huge number of business conference centers, karoke bars, and random individuals buying them at places like Radio Shack and Amazon.
This didn’t cause the interference with television that broadcasters kept predicting would happen whenever people proposed expanding the class of users (officially) beyond the limited group of broadcasters and others. Broadcast is a strong signal beaming down to a dumb receiver. A wireless microphone operating on a channel with an active broadcast system will receive interference (that is, you will get the evening news over your sound system) but you are extremely unlikely to interfere with a person watching TV. So everyone was happy to ignore the fact that, by the 2008, there were probably around 1 million unauthorized wireless microphones in use all around the country.
Two things happened to make this situation intolerable. One was the change over to DTV and the reclamation of Channels 52-69 for commercial wireless and public safety uses. Unlike broadcast systems, these systems operate on a cellular architecture. Devices send weak signals to towers and receive weak signals that they must decode. The relatively small signal strength of wireless microphones creates real problems for these systems. To visualize the difference imagine you and your friend at a football game. Your talking doesn’t really make a difference to what everyone else is seeing and hearing because everything else is so loud. No take that same conversation and put it in a library. It bothers lots of people trying to concentrate on their work. Nothing changed between you and your friend, but the change in environment makes a huge difference.
The second thing was the fight to get TV white space devices approved. The wireless microphone people became convinced that the white sapce devices would interfere with their wireless microphones. So they enlisted the help of politically useful constituencies such as Broadway theater groups and mega churches. The problem was, these users were all ineligible for licenses — as fact the Broadway folks simply refused to believe. So they kept on complaining to the FCC and rubbing their noses in the fact that there was massive illegal use of wireless microphones going on that the FCC had ignored for so long that the people using them believed themselves entitled to use them and insisting on doing field tests of white spaces prototypes amid all their illegal use, for gosh sakes.
All these made a couple of facts plain for those of us who cared to look:
(a) The wireless microphone problem had essentially become the equivalent of an oil slick spreading all over the spectrum, with extremely nasty results likely when the 700 MHz auction winners and public safety guys tried to deploy systems.
(b) From a consumer protection side, something needed to be done to protect consumer use of wireless microphones. Wireless microphone use had become “too big to fail.” It was simply not possible to get rid of wireless microphone use, and blatantly unfair to the people who went out and bought them in good faith believing they had every legal right to use them.
Hence our Petition and complaint against wireless microphone manufacturers. PISC took the position that the FCC needed to stop playing around and refusing to address the reality and actually give wireless microphone use by non-eligible parties some real status. And, if someone had to pay to replace all that equipment, it ought to be the wireless microphone guys.
But, of course, the big question was how would the newly legalized wireless microphones play with the soon to be approved (we hoped) white spaces devices. We continue to believe that the two can coexist. The wireless microphone manufacturers (and the Coalition of Wireless Microphone Users (CWMU), which includes the Broadway guys) keep insisting they can’t. We took the position that anyone establishing prior use due to illegal use was not entitled to any protected status. So while we wanted wireless microphones made legal, we also wanted it clear that they had co-equal footing with white space devices.
The NAB, wireless microphone manufacturers, and the CWMU proposed expanding the class of folks eligible for Part 74 licensing to include everyone with enough clout to join the CWMU. Basically, the pitch to the FCC was “take care of those with political pull and cut a deal that gives us the right to an area that excludes wireless microphones (licensed wireless microphone users are eligible for inclusion in the White Space Database, which controls how white space devices operate; at the moment, a licensed wireless microphone system (of which there are less than 1000) gets an ”exclusion zone” by registering in the database where white space devices cannot operate). We resisted this strenuously.
The FCC ended up siding mostly with us and pushing off the question of expanding the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licensing. The FCC used its power to give everyone who has an existing wireless microphone legal status by giving waivers under the existing Part 15 rules (the rules that govern unlicensed use of low-power wireless devices, like wifi routers). That puts them on equal footing with white space devices. But the FCC also launched a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to examine whether or not to expand the eligibility for Part 74, Subpart H licenses. In doing so, the Commission also asks what impact this would have on white spaces devices, and efforts to manage the spectrum generally.
In other words, the Commission has taken care of the immediate crisis, and will now resolve the bigger question about how wireless microphones and white space devices fit in to the question of data-driven and efficient spectrum management that recognizes value in both traditional services and new broadband services.
I can definitely live with that. In fact, I look forward to it. Hopefully, as my opposite numbers on net neutrality like to say, everyone will take this as an opportunity to scale back the rhetoric and try to work together to resolve real issues based on sound engineering analysis.
Hey, a guy can dream.
Stay tuned . . . .