The Fellowship Church is a Christian megachurch drawing about 22,000 worshipers to its multiple locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond on average weekends. Situated just north of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, TX, the house of worship’s main campus seems an unlikely location for war room-type strategy, but that’s what’s going on in the office of Matt Wheeler, the man who gives direction to audio and technical production.
Squinting hard at a color-coded map with prolific markings so densely packed that it looks as if it was the clear loser in a round of heated, multi-hued paintball competition, Wheeler gets noticeably excited when he discovers an open spot on the chart.
“Right there,” he says pointing to the map. “There’s an opening right there. It’s getting harder and harder every day to find some clear space on this thing.”
The map Wheeler is scrutinizing so carefully is of the frequency spectrum open to him for the church’s wireless operations, which include numerous microphones used by everyone from the pastor and other clergy members to the praise team and choir. To ensure that the Fellowship Church’s worship services go on without interference from other users of the same spectrum, Wheeler has developed a mindful and carefully monitored blueprint that allows his church systems to coexist peacefully with his competition among the “White Spaces” between TV channels, a place utilized by wireless microphones for decades.
“Currently, there is a big block of open space in the 700 MHz range,” Wheeler notes. “But it’s up for auction. Given the uncertainty of what’s going to happen there, we don’t want to invest heavily in gear expressly for use among those frequencies, as they could become crowded and unusable in short order, and then we’re out all that money. The alternative is staying put where we are, and that’s not an easy task either. Every time we turn on a wireless microphone, I have signals in here vying for the same space from 33 active TV stations, as well as a number of other wireless devices in use locally.”
Wheeler’s situation is a common one faced by churches large and small around the nation that has the potential of growing worse as the FCC finds itself under formidable pressure from Congress and the business sector to open the White Spaces to other unlicensed wireless devices. Encouraged by an FCC mandate providing for a complete transition to digital television (DTV) transmission by February 18, 2009 that promises to increase the number of White Spaces frequencies available, electronics manufacturers and broadband providers have been clamoring to lay claim to their portion of the spectrum pie, while legislators in Washington D.C. push bills aimed at helping businesses back home with quick approval for use of new wireless devices.
“Just entertaining the mere idea that we could be facing added competition from a flood of unlicensed devices changes the equation for us entirely,” says Mark Sepulveda, the technical director of Houston’s Second Baptist Church, a multi-campus ministry with over 40,000 members that typically spreads wireless usage at all of its locations across a total of 310 different frequencies on any given Sunday. “I tend to refrain from ever wanting to sound like Chicken Little, but the results of such a move could be devastating, worship services as we know them could cease to exist.”
By his own best conservative estimates, Sepulveda believes that if the spectrum of wireless operation became so crowded that he was forced to overhaul his entire technical blueprint, it may cost the church as much as $300,000. Like Matt Wheeler, his wireless systems already face such hefty competition from local DTV stations and other sources that hardwired systems are used whenever possible as a matter of rule.
“Hardwired systems are indeed immune to the impact of spectrum crowding, but there are only so many places you can use them,” Sepulveda adds. “The fact of the matter is that in a modern worship environment, wireless operation has become a necessity. There is no way we could do what we’re asked to do each week with cabling strung all about. The nature of our services demands the freedom wireless affords. It’s my hope that the personal convenience of allowing these proposed unlicensed devices to operate in the White Spaces doesn’t drive the FCC’s ruling on this matter. A fair solution would give equal weight to everyone who could be potentially inconvenienced at the same time. In our case alone, that would be some 40,000 people.”
To date, in good faith the FCC has shown that it has every intention of ruling on the White Spaces in a fair and evenhanded manner, this as the agency approaches an October deadline this year when it will reveal a formal set of new regulations. Supporting the cause for maintaining a democratic spectrum environment where no one group will suffer at the hands of another’s usage, results of FCC testing of two new mobile, prototype unlicensed devices revealed this summer clearly showed that they would indeed interfere with both wireless microphones and some types of home DTV receivers. The ultimate outcome, however, of how this testing will impact the final regulations issued remains unknown at this time.
“This is a very challenging situation for everyone, and there will be no easy answer,” Reed Hall of Houston’s Lakewood Church says, looking forward just as Matt Wheeler and Mark Sepulveda are to whatever the FCC will announce in October. “Right now, in the realm of our wireless frequency use, we don’t have a whole lot of places to go, and it’s a bit unnerving to know that the places we do have left may not be there tomorrow. Fortunately for us, we have been blessed with the ability to spend the money needed to make our systems work regardless of what happens. Unfortunately for a lot of other churches everywhere who don’t have the budget to completely retool and hire professionals to re-coordinate their frequencies, they just may be left with a pastor without a mic if careful thought isn’t given to resolving these issues.”
While no clear answer exists on this topic just yet, one way to insure fair debate all around is to make sure the worship community’s collective voice is heard. By visiting www.shure.com/ProAudio/PressRoom/WhiteSpaces/index.htm , anyone can file a comment directly to the FCC by scrolling to the bottom of the page and following the instructions provided. Concerned individuals and groups should also make it a point to contact their local legislators. To that end, the site listed above also offers samples of letters written to Washington from groups standing to gain or lose based upon the outcome of coming regulations.
“It may be difficult to predict what is going to happen with any certainty,” Mark Sepulveda says, trying to bring some kind of closure to a topic that is still wide-open. “Whatever ensues, sovereignty will play a role. The church as a whole has faced bigger obstacles and the Gospel is still being heard. The genesis for anything great always begins with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle being overcome by a few unwilling to accept that it can’t be conquered.”