What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
This week’s Local Time features guest writer Darcy Martineau.
Television, radio, cell phones, wireless microphones and the U.S. Government: what do these things have in common? All are regulated by a money-wrapped iron fist called the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC rules the airwaves, selling and changing frequency block regulations to suit its own needs. Power and lots of money are all cloaked in the guise of public interest. The FCC is about to change the rules again, which may have an unseen impact on you, but to those of us in the sound industry, whose cries go largely unheard, it can have serious consequences.
The airways, owned and policed by the FCC, are worth many millions of dollars to the government. Every time the FCC decides to sell certain bandwidth blocks, certain frequencies have to be re-allocated, and the blocks get smaller and smaller. Cell companies and wireless service providers are drooling over the prospect of the FCC auctioning off blocks of the spectrum to them. If they can have legal “ownership” of these bands, they can completely shut out the competition from using them. On March 29, 2016 the FCC will begin the weeks-long rather secretive process of auctioning off the 600MHz bandwidth vacated by certain UHF television broadcasters. When the FCC auctions off the rights to these frequencies, anyone operating devices within them will be deemed “illegal.”
Wireless portable devices, radio, broadcast television, satellite, emergency services, and aircraft and military communications must all have an interference-free piece of the electromagnetic radio spectrum. It is a large spectrum, but only a relatively small portion of it is most useful to cell phone and wireless technology service providers. The Navy uses ULF (ultra-low frequency) to communicate with submarines halfway across the planet because the waves are long and powerful and carry over great distances, but it takes a giant antenna and huge amounts of power to do so. (Excuse me while I crank up my electric locomotive engine to power my phone!)
Moving up the spectrum lies the VHF and UHF bands, between 107-109 as shown in the picture above. These are very-high frequencies and ultra-high frequencies in which the old television broadcast stations operated. In, around, and above this spectrum is where many police, fire, aviation and government radio communications operate. The FCC changed the television broadcast regulations to alleviate crowding and re-allocate a portion of the spectrum solely for emergency services, especially after 9-11. These frequencies are short and don’t require a large antenna or much power but are crowded close together.
The FCC holds the power to change frequency allotments, and it does so whenever it deems necessary, reaping usage tax from all broadcasters including cellular phone, satellite, and cable companies that occupy these frequencies. Go look at your cell phone and cable bills to see how many surcharges and federal taxes are in it. Changing broadcast frequency allocations has netted the FCC a massive income. A reasonable consumer might think that would be enough for them.
But wait, there’s more. Remember a decade ago when there was the big switch from analog television and radio to the new high-definition broadcast? Everyone who had a standard definition television had to purchase an analog/digital converter antenna to receive “free” over-the-air programming. Those who couldn’t afford or refused to purchase were provided one by the government. (Kind of smacks of the “Affordable Care Act,” doesn’t it? At least we weren’t at risk of being penalized for not purchasing one.) Americans either got the converter or switched to a cable/satellite provider. Many people might think, “No big loss. Most of broadcast network programming is horrible anyhow.” And they’d be right. But that old television set’s resolution is far below what has become “standard” going forward. You can’t be left out of the new revolution with an old 4:3 ratio cathode ray tube TV that weighs a hundred pounds, contains phosphorus (among other dangerous substances), and sucks enough electricity to brown out Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant. You need to feed the pig by getting the latest model, because your old TV is now obsolete.
The FCC mandate and associated regulations of moving all radio and television broadcasts from analog to high definition digital drove the HD flat-screen television sales revolution, fundamentally changing the consumer electronic market and national economy. If you want to watch your favorite shows and movies in stunning 1080p, 600MHz-refresh-rate-mind-numbing clarity, you must go out and buy a new flat screen. That’s a massive amount of cash driving overseas manufacturing of these products. It also generates sales tax income. And that’s just the impact on the consumer. What about small businesses?
In every city, there are county fairs, biker rallies, festivals, concerts and events in sporting stadiums. From small gatherings to huge trade shows, producers of almost all events depend on wireless technology. Nearly all entertainment events involve some number of wireless microphones, wireless instrument systems, wireless personal ear monitoring systems (like Lady Gaga’s wireless microphone and in-ear monitor at the Superbowl), table microphones at a convention hall, or wireless monitors and instruments at a concert. In order to communicate with one another, wireless units must operate within the same frequency.
The bigger AV companies have large inventories of these devices, and it is not uncommon for some sound providers to have 24 units or more of wireless in-ear monitor systems costing upwards of $1,100 each. They are built to last, if taken care of, easily five years or more. Except for . . . oops, starting in April, the wireless system will now operate in a non-designated frequency range, and use of these once-legal items will be subject to legal action. Manufacturers of these products lobby the government to keep the FCC from re-allocating these frequencies because this isn’t the first or second time they have been effectively sidestepped, but the outcome is always the same. These manufacturers are tiny insignificant gnats to be swatted away by the big business fat cats of broadcast and cell phone service providers.
How many tens of thousands of dollars will it take to replace this soon-to-be illegal wireless? The cost for all this new equipment will be paid by us, the public. It is no wonder that concerts and events are getting so expensive. The FCC in its unbridled haste reaps as much money, literally out of thin air, as it can. But there is some silver lining in all of this. There will be a 39-month transition period where television broadcasters operating in the UHF band must either cease broadcasting or re-tool to another approved frequency. How much will that cost, and when will they be squeezed out by another frequency re-allocation?
As a practical matter, how is frequency management enforced? Short answer: get caught. Here in Colorado, the spectrum is a lot less crowded than in cities like New York, Chicago, and Atlanta where there are giant event centers and concert halls. When hosting an event, the facility management generally posts open frequencies and checks a client’s wireless for acceptable frequency bands. Those in the trade know that they are being monitored on the arena and trade show floors. Violators may end up with a hefty fine accompanied by a cease and desist order. The effective range of most wireless systems is generally about 100 meters, posing, as you might imagine, a great threat to frequency management as the jockeying for frequencies causes wireless units to trip all over one another. Oh what a bummer it will be when Justin Beiber’s gold-encrusted, rhinestone-packing, boy-toy wireless microphone is getting totally stomped by the high-power cell towers at Madison Square Garden that now legally operate in the same frequency.
So as the frequencies go up for auction later this month, once again our wonderful Big Brother government and its off-the-leash big dog, the FCC, are making a successful money grab at our expense. We give away a bit more of our precious privacy to big business, and undue financial hardship is placed on companies to satisfy Washington’s greed. Meanwhile, we lose just a little more economic freedom.
Didn’t it used to be, somewhere way back in the before-time, that it was the people’s free airwaves?
Darcy Martineau is a sound engineer for his own company, Buddha Boys Audio, which has spent the last 12 years providing sound reinforcement to live concerts at both indoor and outdoor venues. As a classically trained bassist, Darcy knows the music scene from both sides of the sound board. He enjoys almost all genres of music and spends his spare time, when there is any, enjoying classic sci-fi movies and spoiling his two black cats, Cassie and Orion.