In late 2015, major wireless microphone manufacturers requested that the FCC “reconsider” various mostly-technical rules that it had adopted as part of a wide-ranging strategy to reallocate spectrum for wireless microphones. (We’ve written about recent regulatory changes for wireless mics here, here and here.)

The Commission now has responded via an Order aimed at fine-tuning the technical rules for wireless microphones.

One topic in this Order has stirred up controversy in what should have been an uneventful FCC proceeding: whether professional performing arts companies that use fewer than fifty microphones should receive interference protection from unlicensed white space devices. The Commission decided several years ago to allow those using fifty or more microphones to obtain a Part 74 license, a regulatory status that permits such users to register for protection in the white space database system, thereby preventing white space devices from turning on while in proximity to the performance location. At that time, the Commission thought that “fifty or more” microphones was a good proxy for “professional” productions.

Many performing arts organizations, as well as the microphone manufacturers, pointed out that this definition barred licensure for professional orchestras, playhouses and other performing arts groups that provided professional-quality performances yet use a smaller number of mics. The policy question for the FCC comes down to this: If you are attending a performance at the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington, D.C., the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall, or the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, do you want to hear the performance or do you want to have access to broadband to surf the web?

To resolve this situation, the Commission included in its Order a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM).  The FNPRM proposes a path to Part 74 licensure if an entity can demonstrate both that it has “professional needs” and is capable of using the license correctly (a showing similar to what most other FCC licensees are required to make when first obtaining a license). Microsoft, which is looking to use white space spectrum to provide broadband, threw a wrench into this initial proposal, claiming that the rule change would burden the FCC staff and open the door to too many new licensees. As a result, Commissioner O’Rielly asked whether a different proposal, one that did not require a case-by-case review, wouldn’t be better.

Comments on the FNPRM can be filed in Docket Nos. 14-165 and 14-166. (Deadlines have not yet been set, but comments likely will be due in early September.)

Meanwhile, for those interested in the actual revisions and clarifications to the technical rules, the Order is mostly a “win” for the wireless microphone community. Specifically, the Commission:

  • Adopted the full ETSI (a European standards setting body) standard for out-of-band emissions, a must for future microphone design;
  • Allowed microphone output power to be measured in EIRP or conducted power, increasing design flexibility for manufacturers (though the Commission declined to raise the power level for mics operating in the Duplex Gap);
  • Provided for the use of standard antenna connectors by Part 15 (unlicensed) microphones;
  • Set out procedures to modify existing equipment, whether via software or hardware changes, for continued use of mics after the repacking of TV stations that is part of the FCC’s Incentive Auction;
  • Revised the 169-172 MHz channelization plan to be more synced to the unique needs of wireless microphones;
  • Left the 30 MHz limit on the use of the 1.4 GHz band, which requires specialized equipment and prior-coordination with the flight test frequency coordinator (AFTRCC), but provided that multiple users in the same area may each access up to 30 MHz so that the entire whole 90 MHz could be in use in aggregate so long as AFTRCC allows; and
  • Spelled out coordination requirements for the new 941.5-944 MHz frequencies.

As always, check back here for updates on wireless microphone issues.