Has the dust finally settled from the upheaval in June 2009 regarding the ceasing of analog Television signals? Yes and no. Presumably people out in the boonies have gotten comfortable with purchasing set-top boxes so they can continue to watch regular television. However, what effect did this process have on other users of RF spectrum- specifically, house of worship wireless microphone users? Now that the DTV transition has come and gone, is everything right with the world?
Not exactly. This is a drama that continues to unfold. We caught up with Chris Lyons, Manager of Educational and Technical Communications at Shure Incorporated to talk about this ongoing saga. Chris has been on the front lines of the so called “White Spaces” issue for many years. Here’s what he had to say in response to some of our questions.
Kevin Rogers Cobus: Since the DTV transition, has there been any further legislation addressing additional frequency ranges that are to be auctioned off?
Chris Lyons: No, the only question still hanging out there is what to do with the “D-Block”. There were two small slices of the 700 MHz band that they tried to auction for public safety use, but the reserve price wasn’t met. They’re currently debating whether they should have another auction and try again, or just give this spectrum to the public safety community and let them decide what to do with it. So, it will go one way or the other, but there doesn’t seem to be a great sense of urgency about it.
KRC: Was this a decision that the wireless microphone industry was hoping to be included in?
CL: Not really. It really doesn’t involve us anymore. They’re giving the spectrum away to somebody but we don’t know who yet. It isn’t us, and there’s no real chance that they’ll say, “Let’s forget the auction and give it back to the microphone people.” They’re certainly not giving it back to the TV stations, so I can’t imagine why there would be any thought of giving it to the microphone industry specifically.
KRC: So has the DTV transition really had any effect on anything?
CL: Well, only a little bit. Most of the 700 MHz band is not yet being used by the new occupants. The big exception was TV channel 55, which was auctioned to Qualcomm. They were ready to use it on day one, and since the DTV transition happened, they basically flipped the switch and started offering service. In some cities where channel 55 had been empty, or maybe had been occupied by a TV station, basically the next morning it was being used for new service. So, if anybody happened to be using a wireless mic on that channel, they might have encountered some interference, but I haven’t heard any specific examples of that. The big guys (the Verizons and AT&Ts) have made lots of noise about starting tests and rolling out limited service in limited areas, but it sounds like that’s not going to happen until the end of 2009.
KRC: Is that because these companies are still developing specific products for that?
CL: Yes, it’s basically the effort and cost involved in getting their infrastructures up and running. They need to add some towers, reconfigure antennas and so forth. They can’t put up one tower in a city like Chicago, for example, and say – “Ok, we’re here!” They basically have to get the whole city outfitted. From their point of view, if they’re not ready to cover a whole metropolitan area, there’s no sense in buying commercials and printing up brochures and telling stores to start selling the service. You can’t really do it half way. It makes sense that [these devices are] going to be in the largest metropolitan areas first. So your readers in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and so forth are going to be on the leading edge.
KRC: What types of products will be inhabiting the 700 MHz frequency range?
CL: There’s been a little bit more information on what 700 MHz services might be – some of the companies will be offering plug-in network cards for your laptop to let you get online, but I’ve also seen mention of other services. Let’s say I own 100 vending machines. I could put this little transmitter in the machine, and when it’s out of chocolate bars, it could radio me and tell me that, instead of me having to go check on all of the vending machines. There are lots of commercial utility applications like that. Another one is smart power meters, where the power meter on a building would tell the utility company what the demand is at different times of the day… that type of thing could be easily implemented in the 700 MHz band.
KRC: Has the FCC officially said when wireless mic users need to stop operating in the 700 MHz band?
CL: Not yet, but we hope to see a decision on that in November or December. The FCC is being pressured by the companies who paid enormous sums for 700 MHz spectrum to order the wireless mic users out as soon as possible, but the FCC is trying to work on the National Broadband Initiative at the same time. Shure is offering a rebate on new wireless system purchases through the end of 2009 to encourage people to upgrade their equipment.
KRC: What about in “White Spaces”?
CL: In the white spaces, we are crawling along at almost a standstill, and the reason for that is that nothing happened until the new FCC chairman came into office – Julius Genachowski. When he came into office with the two new commissioners, the first thing on his desk was the President’s National Broadband Initiative. So they immediately started all these hearings and town hall meetings and consultations with industry, but it’s all at a very high level. They’re talking about what the needs of disabled people are when it comes to broadband, what is the definition of broadband, and how many megabits defines broadband, and does it matter if it’s wired or wireless.
They’re talking lots of theoretical questions at this point, and the rest of the white spaces issue is kind of in line behind that.
KRC: Is Shure as a manufacturer waiting to find out what happens so you can move forward with production of certain products that would exist within those white spaces?
CL: We were waiting, but I think the safest thing to say is we’re not holding our breath anymore. We’ve moved ahead with development on the basis of what we do know. We don’t really believe that the white spaces ruling is going to be overturned, although there is a lawsuit seeking that – filed by the Broadway theater community and by the broadcast community – which is still pending. We don’t think the issue is going to go away. We believe that new devices in some form are going to be using this spectrum at some point – whether it’s in six months or 60 months. So we’re moving forward with the assumption that there’s going to be more crowding in the spectrum, it’s going to be harder to find open frequencies, so your wireless microphone is going to need to be more resistant to interference and need to be better at dealing with higher levels of RF noise.
KRC: So in retrospect, has the DTV transition helped, or hindered?
CL: In one sense it helped, because now that most of the analog stations have shut down there are more channels available for wireless mic use. But in another way it’s still a work in progress. A number of stations in the VHF band (stations on channels 2-13) have found out that their signal coverage is not good at all, and they are moving to the UHF band. One station in Chicago did this, one in New York, one in New Orleans…and I expect to see more. Even though the technical analysis said their coverage would be pretty much the same, they’re finding out that in some cases it’s significantly smaller. So they’re moving to higher channels (between 14 and 51) where the performance is better.
KRC: Do you know why this is?
CL: I think it’s because the lower channels are at lower frequencies and longer wave lengths, so apparently the signal does not propagate in the same way that it does in the UHF band, which is at higher frequencies. Here in Chicago, the CBS channel, which I think was channel 2 – and their DTV channel was 3 – about a month ago they moved up to the UHF band. CBS’s antenna is up on the Sears Tower like everyone else’s, and Chicago is as flat as it gets, so you’d think if you can’t get good signal coverage here, you can’t get it anywhere. Apparently they were getting too many complaints from viewers on the fringe that the coverage radius was just not good enough. And remember, with analog TV some of those people would be getting a poor picture, but they would be getting something, but with digital it’s all or nothing – the picture is either perfect or it freezes. That means, they can’t charge as much for commercials because they’re serving fewer households, so it becomes a monetary issue as well. So the moral is, you may think that it’s all done and you know what the DTV channels are in your city, but that could change and continue to evolve over the next year or two. So, nothing is really over.
Make sure to check out the full interview online at www.tfwm.com. If you have any questions about how the White Spaces issue affects your house of worship, please email firstname.lastname@example.org