Racing the FCC Mic Deadline

What churches must do by June 12—and why.

by Tyler Charles

700 MHz wireless microphones must no longer be used after June 12.

Churches, businesses, and other organizations that use wireless microphones operating in the 700 MHz band (698-806 MHz) must stop doing so by June 12, according to a decision last month by the Federal Communications Commission.

Many churches own wireless mics in the 700 MHz band ("Understanding New Wireless Microphone Restrictions," May/June 2009, Your Church) and continue to operate them, even though the FCC's digital television transition last year signaled a ban to that activity eventually would come. The FCC estimates that 25 percent of wireless mics operate in the spectrum, meaning thousands of churches likely are affected.

Ever since the FCC auctioned off the rights to the 700 MHz band in 2008, it was only a matter of time before the new owners (Verizon and AT&T, among others) would receive sole access to the sections of the spectrum for which they paid billions of dollars. These frequencies will be used (and in some cases, are already being used) by public safety agencies and next-generation (4G) wireless devices.

The FCC says it is ready to help organizations affected by the changes.

"We're doing everything we can to notify as many of these organizations as possible," says Matthew Nodine, chief of staff for the FCC's Wireless Communications Bureau.

For users who are unsure whether their devices need to be replaced, the FCC compiled a list of affected devices: Users with further questions can call 1-888-CALL-FCC. The FCC recommends contacting the manufacturers with any technical questions, Nodine says.

Churches who don't comply face fines. Those that do comply likely face the cost of buying new equipment, although some may find low-cost—or no-cost—solutions in the short term if they can live without a wireless setup.

The key, microphone manufacturers say, is that churches shouldn't wait to act, since June 12 is a firm deadline, and problems likely will emerge even sooner.

"The reality is that users will begin to suffer dropouts and interference from the new data traffic anyway, so at some point in the next few months [their wireless devices] won't work well anyway," says Chris Lyons, manager of technical and educational communications for Shure Inc., a microphone and audio systems provider.

Unlicensed use

Most churches never received a license for operating 700 MHz wireless microphones, but used them anyway without authorization. That wasn't illegal, Nodine says, but it will become illegal with the June 12 deadline.

For the few churches that did receive 700 MHz licenses, they're out of luck with the deadline, too.

"It should also be clearly pointed out that this vacating of the band includes licensed and unlicensed devices," says Kent Margraves, national applications manager for Sennheiser Electronic Corporation, another microphone manufacturer. "It does not matter if the user holds a license."

Facing Penalties

So what happens if a church continues to use these wireless devices after the deadline?

"There's going to be a wide array of potential penalties, including civil and/or criminal penalties," Nodine says. "We always look at things on a case-by-case basis, but obviously, any interference with public safety will be looked at with greater scrutiny."

Nodine says some users will be asked to stop using their devices prior to the deadline.

"In certain areas of the country, commercial enterprises are going to start implementing new devices, and if users cause interference, they'll be given 60 days to stop," Nodine says. "Essentially, if they're causing interference, they need to stop immediately."

Nodine also says that users should know if they're causing interference.

"Typically, if they're receiving interference, then they're also causing it," he says.

Despite all of the attention given to the clearing of the 700 MHz band, Lyons says some churches are just now finding out about it—and despite what some think, everyone needs to comply with the new rule.

"A surprising number of customers seem to think they don't need to comply because 'the FCC doesn't have people driving around with scanners' looking for people using wireless mics in the 700 MHz band," Lyons says. "But the companies who paid billions of dollars for the licenses to use spectrum in the 700 MHz band definitely do have the people, skill, and equipment to do just that."

In addition to incurring fines from the FCC, a church that continues to use its 700 MHz wireless devices could even jeopardize the health of those attending services.

"What if someone has a heart attack during the service?" Lyons says. "When the paramedics rush in to help him, the pastor's own wireless mic could prevent the paramedics from using their walkie-talkies. This scenario may seem unlikely, but it is absolutely possible."

Possible Solutions

The FCC says some tinkering with existing mics that use the 700 MHz spectrum may resolve the problem, but mic experts say that won't work for most.

"A very large percentage of those that operate in the 700 MHz band can be re-tuned," Nodine says.

Lyons and Margraves both suggest that the FCC's suggestion is ambitious.

"I think that only a small fraction of users have systems that can be re-tuned to operate in a different band," Lyons says.

"There are a number of systems on the market that can be re-tuned," Margraves says. "But there are also many, many systems on the market that operate in fixed frequency ranges.

They may be 'frequency agile' but have a fixed bandwidth of several TV stations wide, which cannot be changed, short of a complete overhaul.

"In those instances, system replacement is the best option."

In addition to reviewing the FCC's list to see if certain models can be re-tuned, churches should consult with the equipment manufacturer about the possibility.

Some manufacturers are still offering return rebates to affected users. Both Sennheiser and Shure have extended their rebate programs through June 30, and both companies accept systems made by other manufacturers.

If churches don't have the money to replace their wireless mics, Lyons and Margraves recommend turning to wired microphones.

"If a user doesn't have the budget to replace their 700 MHz systems now, they must turn them off and switch to wired mics until the money becomes available," Lyons says.

Margraves recommends reevaluating the number of RF systems that are needed on a weekly basis.

"Some churches find that they only need their full stock of wireless systems at special events like concerts and pageants," Margraves says. "If that is the case, it is worth considering wireless systems rental for those occasions. Quality rental suppliers will have up-to-date equipment."

Tyler Charles is a freelance writer living in Delaware, Ohio.

Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Your Church magazine.

Reprinted by Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.