White Space Fight Escalates

by Breanne George of FOH magazine

WASHINGTON — A longtime issue facing the live production industry, the white spaces debate has hit full force in a string of events that appear strangely coincidental amid recent FCC field-testing at live events — all of which have failed conclusively. The consortium of tech companies (Yahoo!, HP, Motorola, Google), fervent about opening up the spectrum for wireless Internet use, continue to escalate its fight. At the forefront of efforts, Google has fired back with a new campaign and Web site, Free the Airwaves, to garner public support for open use of the tiny spectrum.

"We are worried the FCC will buckle and allow white space to be used by personal portable devices seeking wireless services," says Karl Winkler, director of business development for Lectrosonics.

Shortly following the launch of the Web site, a “consumer interest group” (See related story here ) filed a complaint with the FCC against certain kinds of wireless microphones, claiming that they violate licensing requirements. The FCC is now considering a potential ban on a number of wireless mics, an action that would affect a variety of live events including Broadway shows, concerts, church services and political rallies among others.
“Remember that fuzzy static between channels on the old TVs? Today, more than three-quarters of those radio airwaves, or "white space" spectrum, are completely unused,” says the Free the Airwaves site.

For the live production industry, the free use of that fuzzy static could cause hidden dangers, not just from a business standpoint, but also for the safety of those involved in the productions.

Personal devices searching for Internet connectivity could interfere with high-end audio equipment already occupying the spectrum, resulting in dropouts and interference. The problems go beyond a wireless mic failing during a Justin Timberlake concert. Many productions’ rigging equipment and scenery pieces are controlled and dependent on wireless devices. If interference were to occur during some shows, the results could be catastrophic.

The potential for interference and loss of signal could also cause a significant reduction in wireless microphones used in productions.

"The number of wireless microphones used will be reduced significantly and it costs big productions millions of dollars to redesign what they do," says Winkler.

Despite the fact that all devices tested by the FCC have failed, it appears that the new strategy among those with monetary interests in white spaces is prohibition of wireless mics unless the operator has a license.