Diverse Coalition Fights FCC Plan To Sell Wireless Airwaves

If all goes according to plan, sometime next year the Federal Communications Commission will auction off a chunk of the airwaves to wireless carriers. It promises to provide greatly improved service for smartphones and other wireless devices, as well as raise billions of dollars for the federal government. The auction could also create serious problems for businesses which depend on wireless microphones and intercoms, like professional football, mega-churches and Broadway.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, a cause that brought Broadway to Capitol Hill today, unusual coalition of Broadway theaters, along with representatives from pro sports and churches went to the Hill to advocate for wireless microphones. The group is concerned about a plan by the Federal Communications Commission to auction off portions of bandwidth. Supporters of the auction say it will create improved service for smartphones and other wireless devices and raise billions of dollars for the federal government.

But as we hear from reporter Jeff Lunden, theaters are worried about interference, the electronic kind.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Songwriter Irving Berlin once said of Ethel Merman, you'd better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable.

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LUNDEN: Those were the days before microphones were used on Broadway. Since the late 1950s, New York theaters have relied more and more on amplification. And in the past several decades, as technology has improved, on wireless microphones. Scott Lehrer is a Tony Award-winning sound designer.

SCOTT LEHRER: An average musical on Broadway could be using anywhere from 30 to 50 channels of radio frequency for wireless microphones, for communications. So it isn't just the actors all wearing microphones, it's also for the intercom for the stage managers and stage hands to actually do cuing.

LUNDEN: Multiply that by 39 theaters on Broadway and you get close to 2,000 wireless microphones and intercoms in use in a little over 10 square blocks. They don't get in each other's way because the mics are tuned to avoid interference and each uses a fraction of the power your average cell phone does.

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LUNDEN: All of these low power microphones and intercoms work on tiny slices of broadcast frequency in between what used to be broadcast public and local TV channels. Tom Ferrugia is an attorney for the Broadway League, which represents theater owners and producers.

TOM FERRUGIA: The blank spaces between the TV channels were called the white spaces in the sense they were unused portions of the spectrum and they were intentionally left unused so that the television networks would not interfere with each other. We use the white spaces.

LUNDEN: This part of the broadcast spectrum is excellent for wireless microphones, says Scott Lehrer, since it allows for reliable high-quality audio transmission and that's exactly why the big cell phone companies have been pushing the FCC hard.

LEHRER: The cell phone providers would love to get into the UHF bandwidth because it's gonna provide them a much, much more efficient and reliable way for transmitting signals.

LUNDEN: Right now, mobile devices work on much less reliable bandwidth, which they have to license. Wireless microphones, because of their low power, operate in white spaces without licenses and there are a lot of users. Houses of worship, television and film crews, rock and roll tours, sporting events, baby monitors, TV remotes, key fobs.

Henry Cohen who works for CP Productions, which rents wireless equipment to the NFL as well as to Broadway shows, says when the FCC first announced proposed rule changes in 2004, the staff was taken by surprise.

HENRY COHEN: The FCC commissioners, the Office of Engineering and Technology, the Wireless Bureau really had no clue as to how many wireless microphones were out there. And part of that is because all of those wireless microphones were operating unlicensed. They didn't realize there was probably about 4.5 to 6 million channels of wireless microphone actually in operation.

LUNDEN: So companies like CP Productions, the NFL and the Broadway League banded together to lobby the FCC to make sure some space will be set aside for their use. They already took a hit last year when a portion of broadcast frequency was taken away to create a reliable network for first responders. Another chunk was auctioned off to Verizon Wireless for $4 billion.

Edward Wyatt who covers the FCC for the New York Times says the government is looking to raise billions more from the planned auction next year.

EDWARD WYATT: The estimates for just this band of spectrum go up to 20 billion and certain people in Congress, mostly Republicans, have been quite adamant about selling off as much as possible, not leaving broad interference bands, white space unsold because it's too valuable.

LUNDEN: The auction would reduce white spaces available for wireless mics even further, so microphone manufacturers are scrambling to create more efficient wireless transmitters and exploring whether it's technologically feasible to use different parts of the spectrum. A national database of wireless frequencies has been created to try and minimize interference when the spectrum is auctioned off. But as it stands now, Broadway and other users of wireless microphones are going to be squeezed, says sound designer Scott Lehrer.

LEHRER: There's only so much airwaves and we have to find a way that we can share it and live with one another and give the public a good level of service, but also protect the people who are providing the content for the service, whether it's a football game or Broadway musical.

LUNDEN: And still let you watch kitten videos on your cell phone. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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