In a complaint filed in mid-July, consumer groups are accusing users of wireless microphones–including educators and others speaking in large lecture halls–of unwittingly violating Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that require government licenses for such devices.

In the complaint, the groups accused manufacturers, such as Shure Inc. of Niles, Ill., of deceptive advertising in the way they market and sell high-end, wireless microphones to people who are not legally permitted to use them.

The complaint recommends that the government agree to a general amnesty for unauthorized users of wireless microphones.

The legal filing on such a quirky subject raises serious questions for the U.S. government–as well as for users of wireless microphones, including educators who aim to make themselves heard in front of large classes.

It alleges that after the nation’s conversion to digital broadcasting in February, some of these microphones will threaten emergency communications and interfere with commercial wireless carriers, which spent $19 billion to use the same airwaves as the microphones.

It’s unclear how many educators, entertainers, pastors, musicians, and others use wireless microphones. Analysts say there might be millions of users–most of whom do not understand that FCC rules require a license and include strict limits on who may qualify for such a license.

High-end wireless microphones operate in the same frequency bands as broadcast television stations. The devices are intended for use in the production of television or cable programming or the motion picture industry, according to FCC rules. Those users must obtain a government license.

FCC records show 952 people or organizations possess such licenses.

The complaint, filed with the FCC by a coalition of consumer groups known as the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, figures heavily in a steadily escalating battle between broadcasters and the technology industry over who should have access to frequencies that exist between television channels, also known as "white spaces."

The FCC rarely enforces the licensing requirements on wireless microphones, because there have been so few complaints. The microphones are programmed to avoid television channels. Broadcasters haven’t complained, and the consumer groups accused the FCC of "benign neglect" regarding enforcement.

A spokesman for Shure, Mark Brunner, said the FCC understands that "today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme."

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny confirmed that use of the microphones has drawn few complaints, but there could be some going forward "and we recognize that," he said.

The commission is considering rules that would resolve interference problems among legal licensees, but there are concerns the fix won’t address those users who are unlicensed.

Channels 52 through 69 in the UHF television band, currently used by broadcasters, will be vacated on Feb. 17 as full-power stations convert to digital broadcasting. The government sold that section of airwaves for $19 billion in the FCC’s most successful auction in history.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. bought $16 billion worth of the licenses. The companies are expected to take years before they begin using them. Other parts of the television spectrum–including frequencies from 763-775 MHz and 793-805 MHz–will be used by paramedics, police, and firefighters.

It’s not known how many wireless microphones operate in that range and will be subject to interference.

The issue, then, will be for those wireless microphone users who find an "empty" channel on which to operate a microphone.

Come February, if that "empty" channel is one of the designated public safety channels, users might keep operating their wireless devices on that channel–unknowingly causing potential problems.

Some users simply might need to retune their wireless devices to channels outside of these designated emergency communications channels, while others might find that they need to purchase new devices.

Shure has been advising its customers to reconfigure their wireless microphones if those devices operate in a band that overlaps the public safety band.

"So, you could tune into an empty channel one day, keep using it, and suddenly it needs to be used by emergency responders," said Chris Lyons, manager of educational and technical communications for Shure. "The issue is that people own a product that could be tuned into a frequency that belongs to the new public safety band, and we want to make sure that they know to change that device to another frequency."

Shure stopped selling microphones that use the potentially troublesome frequencies last November.

Other companies that sell wireless microphones to educators say they’re aware of the issue.

All wireless products from Anchor Audio, which manufactures wireless microphones that are widely used in education, operate in the 692-698 MHz range.

"We don’t see this to be much of a problem, at least for Anchor, …when the switch is made to digital television," said Robert Foulger of Anchor Audio’s marketing department.

Extron Electrics recently unveiled its first wireless microphone, but it operates on infrared technology for signal transmission, and "is not threatened by the changes occurring in the use of the radio frequency spectrum," said Mike Andrews, director of marketing communications.

A spokesman for Califone said only that the company is closely following the developments.

The FCC also is considering whether to allow companies to use the airwave spaces between television channels, following the transition to digital TV, for transmitting wireless broadband signals.

Consumer groups and some of the nation’s largest technology companies–including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Dell Inc.–say these white spaces represent enormous potential to make broadband internet service more accessible. The nation’s broadcasters, however, are unconvinced that devices can be designed to avoid interfering with television signals.

The lawyer who wrote the complaint, Harold Feld of the public interest law firm Media Access Project, said wireless microphones have been the "elephant in the room" in the debate over white spaces.

Shure, Broadway theaters, the Grand Ole Opry, and other users of wireless microphones have objected to future white-space devices in filings with the FCC, because of fears about interference–even though many of them haven’t been granted government licenses for the microphones they’re using.

That’s a point not lost on the FCC chairman, who generally supports the initiative on white spaces.

"The complaint certainly highlights the fact that there are already other people using the white spaces in an unlicensed capacity, and that’s something we will look at going forward," the FCC’s Kenny said.

The consumer groups are recommending that the FCC halt sales of wireless microphones that operate between channels 52 and 69 and create a new "general wireless microphone service" to operate in other parts of the airwaves. They also want the FCC to require microphone manufacturers to replace the older devices.

"We’re waiting for the FCC to make a ruling on whether wireless microphones must stop using those frequencies, or must stop by a certain date, but have heard nothing on it yet," Shure’s Lyons said.

Links:

Shure Inc.: Information on Wireless Microphones

Media Access Project Complaint and Filing