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Digital switchover affects churchesí wireless mic systemscomment (0)

August 6, 2009

Churches across the country eventually will have to replace wireless microphone systems operating in the 700 megahertz range, but the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision on the specifics of when and how is still pending.

The issue arose with the digital television switchover that was finalized in June. During analog days, broadcasters had access to channels 2–69, but the digital switch compressed them to channels 2–51, freeing up frequencies that the FCC auctioned off to national and local bidders.

Before the switchover, broadcasters like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were using channels 2–69 essentially as a gift from the government in exchange for airing local news and other programming. That’s still the case with channels 2–51.

Wireless microphones, meanwhile, were allowed to operate in that same frequency range without charge wherever they could find space. But now that the FCC has leased channels 52–69 to major corporations, that space — 700 MHz range — can’t be used for free.

“[W]ireless mics that were operating in the 700 MHz range ... are potentially not going to be able to operate because that spectrum has now been sold,” mostly to major corporations like Verizon and AT&T who together bid about $12 billion, said Matt Nodine, acting chief of staff for the FCC’s wireless telecommunications bureau.

A significant portion of the 700 MHz range has been reserved for public safety use, including police, fire and other first responders.

Another portion of the band is reserved for groups that are licensed to use the space, such as Broadway shows and major sporting events.

Those who don’t fall in one of those categories will have to find another spectrum in which to operate.

For churches and others using wireless microphones on a smaller scale, it becomes a matter of operating as unauthorized users, Nodine noted. But not all wireless microphones operate within that spectrum, so not all microphones will have to be replaced.

Even so, it could be costly with some wireless systems costing up to $2,000 each.

“Those are the ones that are designed to work within that frequency range, so those are the ones that will be affected,” said Chip Leake, worship pastor at the Nashville-area Thompson Station Church.

“They seem to carry the signal better with a lot less chance of signal dropout. That’s the reason they want the 700 MHz bandwidth to be open. The signal travels farther on less energy within that bandwidth than it does as you go outside of that bandwidth,” Leake said, noting his church will have to replace about $6,000 worth of equipment.

Ed Landers, director of the media center at Samford University’s Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies, said the problem with having to replace microphones is that “most churches haven’t budgeted for this, especially with the economy the way it is.”

But the current response of many Alabama Baptist churches seems to be the same — waiting and watching.

Jeff Crumpton, director of technical ministries at Hunter Street Baptist Church, Hoover, said out of its 40 church-owned wireless microphone systems, less than 10 are in the 700 MHz range. And those are the ones not used very often, such as in Sunday School rooms and other smaller settings.

“We are not clear yet on exactly what is going to happen,” Crumpton said. “We are holding off and waiting.”

This is also the response Michael Thompson, owner of Thompson Sound Inc. in Trinity, has been giving churches, which make up 80 percent of his clientele.

“There is still a lot of gray area,” he said. “What we’ve been telling our customers who have microphones in the 700 MHz range is that as long as you’re not causing interference to other people or having interference (on your end), then you can use it. ... You’ll have less trouble if you are more rural than if you are located in a larger city like downtown Birmingham.”

Another issue churches have been wondering about is the development of TV Band Devices (TVBDs), which could include next-generation mobile phones and mobile broadband cards for laptop computers that will utilize white spaces to access the Internet.

White spaces are channels that exist between the channels that are being used for broadcasting. For example, if a local ABC affiliate broadcasts on channel 10, then channels 9 and 11 may be white spaces. The FCC is requiring that all white-space devices avoid transmitting on TV channels being used by TV stations, wireless microphones and other users.

TVBDs, in order to be approved by the FCC, will have spectrum sensing capabilities to detect and avoid TV stations, wireless microphones and other users of the spectrum. But spectrum-sensing technology is still under development and some wireless microphone users have expressed concern about whether the plan will work. For instance, a pastor wouldn’t want his sermon interrupted by someone’s white-space device.

“The concern is when the new cell phones come out if the conversation will be broadcasted over the wireless system,” Landers said. “It’s really up in the air how it’s going to affect us.”

Leake said the white space issue hasn’t affected his church yet because Google, Microsoft and other companies are still developing the technology for the devices. Some experts have said the earliest they expect it to be available to consumers is late this year. And as the devices emerge, churches that haven’t switched out their 700 MHz equipment run the risk of experiencing interference.

Most of the 700 MHz wireless microphone systems already are off the shelves, Nodine noted. “Now the question becomes, ‘Do people have to replace the systems?’ There’s no grandfathering in. It’s not like you can sit there and continue to use the 700 MHz wireless for another 15 years until the system goes out.”

As it stands now, the FCC has issued a warning that the day will come when churches and other organizations will have to stop using equipment that operates within the 700 MHz band, but there is no firm deadline yet.

Larger churches may have more flexibility in their budgets to cover the cost of replacing some of the specified equipment, and smaller churches may not have to worry about interfering in white spaces if the lapel microphone has a small radius of 15–20 feet and is hardwired to the sound system.

A significant number of churches purchase equipment from a company called Shure, which has announced a rebate program of up to $1,000 for the trade-in of Shure 700 MHz frequency band wireless systems and for any other manufacturers’ qualifying 700 MHz frequency band wireless systems and their related components.

For more information, visit www.shure.com/rebate.  (BP, TAB)

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