FCC frequency changes

Tracey Richardson, technical director at the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, shows one of the wireless devices that will need to be replaced due to an Federal Communications Commission auction of a portion of radio frequency.

It ranks at the top of Frank McClain’s list of things he wishes he didn’t have to worry about at the helm of Dubuque’s Grand Opera House.

Yet, a looming expense to the tune of $25,000 will need to be paid by the nonprofit community theater, perhaps as early as December.

“We’re looking at needing to replace 20 of our wireless microphone packs that performers use, as well as the receivers,” said McClain, executive and artistic director. “Thanks to a DRA (Dubuque Racing Association) grant, we’ve already been able to invest $10,000 in seven new microphone packs. But we’re looking at about $25,000 more before the end of the year in order to replace the others.”

That’s not all.

The Grand also will need to replace its Clear-Com wireless headset system used by stagehands and technical crew to communicate things like set changes, rigging, curtains and lighting and sound cues. That cost figures in at approximately $16,000.

Here’s why.

What happened

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered that those using wireless microphones move from the 600 MHz frequencies to those falling between 470 and 534 MHz, rendering most equipment in use soon-to-be obsolete — and even illegal — to operate.

What it means for organizations like the Grand and other theater groups is an overhaul of microphone packs that house the frequency and power microphones, as well as receivers.

Dubuque’s Bell Tower Theater has nearly completed replacing 18 of its wireless microphone packs and receivers, as well as two handheld microphones. The cost? About $22,000.

“We got a little more than $16,000 from 100+ Women Who Care Dubuque and a couple of other grants to help us supplement the expense,” said Miki Robinson, operations and marketing manager for the Bell Tower. “But we’re a small organization. If we wouldn’t have had that assistance, it would have been very difficult for us to do, and we need working microphones in order to do what we do. If we don’t have working microphones, a very high percentage of our audiences won’t be able to hear our shows.

“(Microphone packs are) a tough thing to raise money for. They aren’t sexy as a fundraiser. And it still set our capital improvement plan back one to two years.”

Dumbing it down

Wireless audio depends on sending and receiving signals on frequencies that fall within the radio spectrum. However, not all spectrum is created equal. For example, low-end radio waves (think AM radio) are weak, despite being able to travel far.

On the high end of the frequency, you’ll find the opposite: Radio waves that are powerful but don’t have the ability to travel as great a distance. It’s the spectrum that falls in between that’s an ideal catch.

With only so many pieces of the radio spectrum pie to slice for wireless communication tools like cellphones, tablets and laptops, digital television signals, GPS, Bluetooth and even baby monitors, competition is plentiful. So, the government steps in to decide which devices can operate on which frequencies.

In 2010, the National Broadband Plan was put in motion by Congress, where the FCC declared broadband “a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.” In 2012, Congress allowed the FCC to auction off a portion of radio spectrum. And in 2014, the FCC set its sights on the 600 MHz band — where most wireless microphone packs and receivers operate.

At $8 billion, T-Mobile became the largest bidder in the auction that began in 2016 and continued into 2017.

Those with wireless microphones using 600 MHz have until July 2020 to vacate the frequency. However, that deadline is a moving target, according to McClain, as T-Mobile began taking over parts of its acquired spectrum this month.

According to Spectrum Gateway, T-Mobile will begin testing on the 600 MHz frequency in our region — phase one of 10 — on Sept. 14, ending Nov. 30.

Among the other bidders are Dish, Comcast and AT&T.

“It’s a big question mark,” McClain said. “Unfortunately, the FCC is under no obligation to tell us when the change in frequencies will officially take place. They might say 2020, but many assume it will be when testing is complete. We don’t want to be in a situation ahead of our production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ where we suddenly can’t use our microphones. We want to be ready.”

And it’s not as simple as changing frequencies the way one might channel-flip radio or television stations. For most, the change requires new equipment.

“It’s not like a CB Radio,” said Tracey Richardson, technical director of the Grand. “Wireless microphones use a fixed frequency.”

A similar auction took place in 2008, where 700 MHz was acquired for public safety devices. At that time, the FCC said it didn’t anticipate future frequency shifts. However, with wireless mediums only becoming more prevalent, those impacted by such changes keep a watchful eye.

“Nothing would surprise me,” McClain said.

Theaters not the only ones taking cues

While live theaters might be feeling the pinch, they’re hardly alone.

Churches, stadiums, lecture halls, conference rooms and event centers across the country are impacted. Even the garage band down the street with a wireless handheld microphone and kids performing in a school play will have to comply.

“What’s challenging about it from a school district standpoint is that unlike athletics, theater departments are self-sustaining — meaning that if this change does impact us and there is a significant cost, we’re on our own to come up with the money to do it,” said Megan Schumacher, a paraprofessional at George Washington Middle School, which is evaluating whether or not its equipment is compliant.

“It’s not just the plays but also school assemblies and sporting events. When you think about how many rely on the use of wireless microphones, it’s going to affect a lot of groups.”

For those caught misusing the 600 MHz frequency, the fines can be steep.

“The impact is significant,” said Aaron Dean, speech and theater teacher at Dubuque Senior High School, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with students for last summer’s Arts Advocacy Day and met with Iowa representatives from Congress about the issue.

“With our program and so many others across the country, support comes through ticket sales and fundraising. Those funds pay for our performance rights and royalties for shows, as well as costumes and set pieces. So, to replace wireless microphones at a cost of $20,000, it hurts programs. And it hurts students’ opportunities. We already operate on a shoestring budget.”

Those who hop on the frequency also might notice interference, as well as picking up wireless phone calls.

“We knew this was coming, so we began making this change in 2017,” said Randy Schultz, technical director and production manager for the University of Dubuque’s Heritage Center, which not only is home to live performances but also worship services, lectures and more.

“We replaced nine microphones at around $14,000, and with the help of some rebates, we got it down to less than $12,000. As wireless microphone users, what you’re paying for is the technology and ease of use. Still, even though we were proactive, it did take a chunk out of what we had been budgeting for other things.”

Here’s how to make the change

Audio retailers, such as Rondinelli Music/Audio in Dubuque, are stocking equipment that complies with the new FCC regulations.

According to the FCC, “the manufacture, import, sale, lease, offer for sale or lease, or shipment of wireless microphones or similar devices intended for use in the United States that operate on the 600 MHz service band frequencies (617-652 MHz and 663-698 MHz) is prohibited after October 13, 2018.”

“In our case, we already have so much inventory turnover that we don’t have to worry quite as much about replacing equipment,” said owner George Rondinelli. “Everything we are stocking now will work with the new frequencies. And we also are helping customers get in the know about this and making sure what they buy will work for them.”

Rondinelli said that some wireless equipment can be sent in to manufacturers to be re-channeled. Otherwise, it must be replaced.

Limited-time rebates for trade-in equipment also are being offered through major manufacturers such as Shure, Audio-Technica and Sennheiser.

“We’re hoping that this change will last awhile,” Robinson said. “These kinds of microphones and the investment we’re making in them should last us 15-20 years. We’d hate to have to do this again in only a couple.”

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