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Wireless Rulings

Jan 10, 2011 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny

Why you need to pay attention.

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In the FCC’s Sept. 23 decision to open up portions of the broadcast spectrum to white spaces devices, wireless microphone users were granted a protected part of the spectrum. It was, in a sense, a victory. Other guidelines, such as who will govern the approval process for those seeking licenses for their events, are unclear.

“Ninety percent of wireless users will likely see no difference,” says Lectrosonics’ Karl Winkler, in reference to the September 2010 decision by the FCC to open up portions of the broadcast spectrum to white space devices, meaning new portable consumer gadgets and the coming enhanced Wi-Fi networks being pushed by companies such as Google, Dell, and Microsoft. “For typical wireless users, those who run fewer than 16 channels in a fixed installation where the mics are in close, they should be fine,” Winkler says. “But if you go out to the edge with a large number of channels that are unregistered in a crowded market, you could find yourself in trouble.”

What is he talking about? In some circles, the unanimous Sept. 23 decision was front-page news. That ruling was two years in the making, following a 2008 announcement that the largest allocation of wireless spectrum in 25 years would be opened up to unlicensed use. The NAB petitioned vehemently to prevent the ruling, arguing that by allowing unlicensed, low-power users unfettered access to the broadcast spectrum, TV stations and newsgatherers would be in constant jeopardy from interference. Wireless microphone manufacturers, most notably Shure, also chimed in, spending millions of dollars and enlisting the support of Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, Rep. Shelly Berkley of Nevada, and others to lobby on behalf of the professional wireless community. Imagine, they argued, countless local Wi-Fi hot spots and thousands of active smartphones at a concert in Minneapolis, a political rally in D.C., or an unscheduled media event in Times Square, right in the heart of Broadway—there could be dropouts, interference, or signal stomping, even from low-power devices.

It was an argument that nobody was going to win. NBC against Google? ABC/Disney/ESPN against Microsoft? Shure, Sennheiser and Lectrosonics against Dell? Consumers want the access and the speed, the latter argued. Consumers want clarity and reliability argued the former. But after the dust settled (and the bloggers chimed in), it seems that, yes, the high-tech community won big, with unused white space—the high-quality broadcast spectrum freed up with the 2009 conversion to digital television—opened up to unlicensed use for low-power devices. And, yes, the FCC acknowledged the professional audio community, even if it was in a limited way.

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