I was watching an interview today between Charlie Rose and Michael Arrington from TechCrunch and the topic of the expansion of the mobile web in the United States was discussed. I have linked to many news articles about the ongoing spectrum auction for nearly a year now as it has a direct impact on me at work. How could surfing on the web on your iPhone effect a guy who changes strings for a living? You would be surprised at how the explosion of cell usage and mobile bandwidth can effect my day.

When you see a band onstage you take for granted that you will hear what comes out of their instruments, as long as it’s working properly or they are actually playing it. The band often runs around, from one end of the stage to the other, interacting with the crowd, playing to the left, to the right, to the back. Compared to the early rock days when performers were lashed to their amps and standing still in the front of microphones, the freedom of wireless mics and transmitters gives both the musician and the audience a closer and more animated experience. In the past 15 years as well, the performers have been able to improve their experience by using wireless ear monitors, which usually have custom fitted ear molds that provide them with a mix of what they need to hear in order to play, be in pitch and interact with the others onstage. In my case, I use wireless ear monitors to be able to hear what is going on for my clients as far as function, quality and tuning while being able to continue to work in the shadows to be ready for the next tune.

Tours become more high tech and elaborate every year. We often end up being the R&D department for certain tech as we use it in real time, real world conditions, indoor and out, hot, cold, dry, rainy, 110 volts, 220 volts, 60 cycles, 50 cycles… we pack it, move it, drop it, pick it up and see if it works. As reliability is a must, things that fail have a very short life with the road crew with very few exceptions.

At the start, a lead singer might have had a wireless mic so he or she could croon to the audience. Then the guitar player really wanted to pose out in front of the PA speakers (or not trip over his cable after a few adult beverages). The wireless manufacturers began to use different frequency ranges to improve sound quality and reliability as different parts of the spectrum are regulated for certain use. You might remember the scene from “Spinal Tap” when Nigel’s guitar begins to pick up the control tower when they play at the military base. TV, radio, police communications, taxis, CB’s, walkie talkies, cell phones, wifi, cordless telephones and radio controlled toys all have specific frequencies that they are supposed to operate in, which are regulated by the government. It is different in each country; in the US it is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.

With the audio wireless equipment that has been available for 10 or 15 years, manufacturers would use a range of about 20 mHz for a series, giving the user a very wide selection of frequencies to choose from, especially as they travelled they could be “frequency agile” and adapt to different wireless traffic in each city. That way Nigel would never pick up the control tower as long as his roadie wasn’t asleep at the wheel. It also allowed sound companies and bands to use more wireless, placing channels in groups so they wouldn’t interfere with each other.

It was not unusual on a large tour to use 50 or 60 channels of wireless onstage for mics, back ups, all manner of instruments, ear monitors for players, dancers (and even management!!!) and the band and sound techs as well. In certain places this required a lot of thought and channel changing when the radio traffic was high. Some tours actually employed a specific person as a “wireless cop” to scan each building, determine clean frequencies, interface with the local government and building people and assign specific channels to make it all work.

With the advent of digital television, the FCC began licencing broadcasters to send TV signals in the UHF range in this new format. Being that the resolution of both the video and audio is much higher, it uses more bandwidth as it is “broadband”. In fact it uses 6 mHz of space, which is over 5 times more than a typical channel. I began to see segments of the musical wireless space become very crowded over 5 years ago, especially in larger markets like Chicago and LA.

OK, plenty of technical stuff here but bare with me.

In 2003, I had a situation where we played multiple shows at Giants Stadium. Between the 3rd and 4th show the channels where I had the bass guitar assigned became unusable. I was put in touch with the person who handles wireless for the stadium and be tried to get to the bottom of the transmission that was interfering with the bass. I found out then the level of traffic was much higher than I ever imagined. Giants Stadium uses nearly 500 different channels of radio during an music or sports event. For security, vendors, maintenance, all levels of their infrastructure had communications. They had assignments for TV, the NFL officials, even the radio stations broadcasting from the tail gate parties in the parking lot were on their list. When they are doing a national TV broadcast for a football game, they don’t want errors. Factoring in our onstage and offstage communications, the total was closer to 560 total channels of wireless.

The stadium rep found out through the FCC that a person had been assigned a temporary license to broadcast digital television in the neighboring town for 30 days in the exact same range, beginning on our day off. What a difference a day makes. The clout of the stadium and of the performer meant nothing to the FCC as the other guy had paid for a broadcast licence. We don’t actually pay for a licence in the US; audio wireless is considered licenced but secondary to DTV.

I had more units on order in a different frequency range that luckily arrived that day and I used them instead. I had ordered them because each city was getting harder and harder to find open airspace. The manufacturers were already building 2 new frequency ranges because they knew the problem was coming and the $30,000 worth of gear we had bought was going to be unusable someday soon.

That day might be this year… anytime between now and 2/19/09.

(If you want to see how the airspace is divvied up currently, look at this chart which is in a previous post with a link to a larger res PDF…)

Frequency Chart

A majority of the wireless gear we use operates in the 700 mHz frequency range, either totally or partially. We use different ranges from different vendors. As of Feb. 19, 2009, when analog television broadcast stops in the US, all bets are off.

The frequency auction you may or may not have heard about is referred to as “Auction 73”. Part of the spectrum reallocation will go to public safety. The US government is selling the rights to part of this area of the airwaves to the highest bidder and expect to generate 10 billion dollars in license fees. That will cover about 5 weeks of costs in Iraq, by the way. The telecoms and Internet companies want this spectrum to expand the abilities of mobile communication as the need/want for broadband mobile begins to grow.

The audio wireless mic business does not have quite the clout as the telecoms and internet companies but have banded together to try to save a little bit of space for entertainment and other audio uses (conferences, trade shows, churches, sporting events, anywhere you would use a wireless mic) in what the government refers to as the “White Spaces.” Here is a paragraph from the Shure page I have linked about the government’s intent:

…the FCC is also studying the possibility of allowing unlicensed devices to use future “unoccupied” TV channels, which policymakers now refer to as the “white spaces“. These unlicensed devices fall into two categories – fixed and portable – and include such items as wireless broadband services, wireless multimedia systems, PDAs, and cordless telephones. Currently, these products operate in other radio frequency bands, such as 2.4 GHz. The FCC’s proposed date for allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the new core TV band is February 17, 2009, in conjunction with completion of the DTV transition.

Yikes. That stuff is coming over too? Getting really crowded…

From another Shure page comes this info from the government of how the DTV situation effect us…

Here is a brief summary of how the FCC plans to implement Digital Television service:

  • The FCC has established a “transition period” which will last through February 19, 2009. During this time, existing TV stations will be assigned a second TV channel on which they will begin broadcasting in the new digital format. This means that some television channels that are now vacant may be filled. Wireless microphones operating on these TV channels may or may not encounter interference from the DTV station’s signal.
  • During the transition period, public safety agencies will begin to use TV channels 63 – 64 (764 – 776 MHz) and 68 – 69 (794 – 806 MHz) for two-way radio communications. As these frequencies gradually become busier, wireless microphones operating on these TV channels may encounter occasional interference.
  • After February 19, 2009, TV channels 60 – 62 (746 – 764 MHz) and 65 – 67 (776 – 794 MHz) will be opened up for use by new commercial wireless services. Licenses for these new services will be awarded by competitive bidding. Some of these auctions have already occurred, but the winners will not be able to use this spectrum until it has been vacated by the television broadcasts.

So our gear has a lifespan due to commerce and government regulation… not very rock and roll.
We already have seen how things not in the frequency range effect us, either through harmonic or sheer numbers of transmitters. Ask around the music communities and see if you don’t hear the stories of how 55,000 raise their cellphones at once to let everyone at home hear the start of the show and the wireless mics take a “drop” or a “hit”. GSM phones and the ever-checking-the-cloud Blackberry sound great when musicians leave them in their pockets and come through a guitar amp on 11. Recently I’ve been hearing that the iPhone will cause total “drops” on wireless and some tours won’t let them be turned on around the stage during the show. There are so many wifi repeaters, cell phones, PDA’s and smartphones, EVDO cards that when something happens we don’t have a clear answer as to what caused the problem. In speaking to some of the most experienced people in the field, they don’t always have an answer to the whys… “it’s all voodoo,” one said. The companies have stopped supporting the older, soon to be obsolete audio wireless gear not only to get us to buy the new stuff but so that they are not spending resources on anything that will be worthless or problematic soon.

Hey, we’ll always find a workaround for those who need to “be free”. Audiophiles have found their way back to guitar cords and though the idea of bluetooth guitar wireless is something that just gives me the night sweats, some guy is pondering how to solve the problem. As someone who is connected to my Blackberry all the time and wishing that the browsing speeds were better, I’m not totally against them getting the space to use. I just hope they keep a little area for us to keep on rockin’ in.