Broadway concerned about losing 600 MHz TV white space spectrum

Broadway theaters are growing increasingly concerned about the impact the FCC's planned 600 MHz spectrum auctions will have on wireless microphones used in live performances.

The FCC's planned incentive auction, in which it hopes to persuade broadcast stations to free up some of their 600 MHz spectrum, is aimed at opening up frequencies for licensed mobile broadband services as well as unlicensed operations in TV white space (TVWS), the unoccupied spectrum that sits between TV channels. However, wireless mics and other devices already operate in TVWS.

Wireless microphones and other low power auxiliary devices are currently allowed to operate on unused channels in the UHF and VHF frequency bands used by broadcast television (TV channels 2-51, except channel 37) on both a licensed and an unlicensed basis. The FCC has proposed opening wireless broadband uplink band at channel 51 and expanding downward toward channel 37, with a downlink beginning at channel 36 and expanding downward.

According to the New York Times, the Broadway League, a national trade association, has told the FCC that interference with wireless mics could devastate the sound and stagecraft at major productions. Aside from disrupting performances, such interference might result in physical harm to actors and production workers and ultimately cause significant financial damage to the performance industry.

The Broadway League takes particular issue with a proposed requirement that users of wireless mics register in a database for channel protection, starting a thirty-day notice and comment procedure. The group contends such a scenario is unworkable in numerous instances. For example, touring companies bringing a Broadway musical production to different cities must set up in a matter of days, making adjustments to coordinate with local TV broadcasters and other known users in the vicinity of the theatre.

"There may well be frequencies that are unusable because of regular or sporadic use by unidentified parties. Only after this on-site coordination will a touring-company know whether it will need to register in the database for protection on additional channels. There simply is no opportunity for a thirty-day notice and comment procedure," said the association in comments filed in January.  

The Broadway League has proposed that the FCC provide spectrum licensed under Part 74 rules to professional theatrical productions, ensuring they can register directly with one of the TV bands database administrators for protection from interference from unlicensed operations by TV white space devices. Part 74 licenses are currently limited to AM, FM, TV stations, broadcast networks and cable television systems operators, motion picture and television program producers and certain Broadband Radio Service and Educational Broadcast service stations.

This is not the first time theaters and companies have been faced with shifting their wireless mic operations, as they had to acquire new equipment when the FCC opened up the 700 MHz band (frequencies between 698 and 806 MHz, also known as TV channels 52-69). At that time, the FCC reserved two channels for wireless mics near TV channel 37 for wireless mic use. However, those channels are wide enough to accommodate only 15 to 20 wireless mics, or fewer than one-third needed for the Broadway stage production of Mamma Mia!

"The more the FCC auctions off, the smaller our part gets," Tom Ferrugia, director of government relations for the Broadway League, told the New York Times.

The 120 MHz the FCC hopes to get from the 600 MHz incentive auctions is a major piece of the 300 MHz the agency aims to free for mobile broadband by 2015. Broadcaster participation, however, is voluntary, meaning the FCC may garner considerably less than 120 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum for wireless broadband use.

For more:
- see this New York Times article
- see the Broadway League filing

Related articles:
FCC intends to auction two spectrum bands in late 2014
Broadcasters form coalition to support FCC's incentive spectrum auctions
FCC's Genachowski: We're on track to free up 300 MHz of spectrum by 2015
FCC gives details for 2014 auction of broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband
TV white space rules prompt new wireless mic registration system