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Warning: Exercise Extreme Caution When Buying Wireless Mic or Wireless Guitar Systems!

Updated on April 25, 2010

MarcoMarks Of SoundAdvice

The author's pic temporarily while he desperately looks for a better one
The author's pic temporarily while he desperately looks for a better one

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

This is definitely not the time to willy-nilly run out and buy a wireless mic or guitar system. Besides that, your current system is going to become unusable soon and illegal. You could also be arrested or fined for using it!

Before I get started on this subject let me say that this hub is written for the general public using some data culled from an article, “Game Changer: FCC Rules On Wireless” in the April 2010 issue of Musical Merchandise Review. MMR is a trade journal for music storeowners and musical equipment manufacturers. The magazine is typically not available to, nor read by, the general public or even the majority of musicians and singers. If you are related to a music store in any way make sure you read the article in its entirety.

This hub is not a copy of that MMR article but includes some information from it. MMR is a magazine I trust to be accurate so this hub’s core data is accurate as well. I don’t think they’ll mind if I help distribute a bit of the wireless industry’s information to the general user because that’s a big problem manufacturers of wireless systems are having.

What Happened To Wireless Recently Anyway?

It seems unfathomable that the federal government would permit and license wireless microphones, earplug monitoring, and guitar transmitters in a specified frequency range for more than a decade then suddenly yank the rug out from under hundreds of thousands of us – but they are and the yanking will be completed in June 2010. This is so big, and affects so many, that it’s shocking.

Let me explain the concept of “frequency range” for those who aren’t transmitter engineers – which is most of us. Anything that broadcasts a signal such as a HAM radio set, FM radio station, AM radio station, TV station, police radio, fire radio, wireless home phone from room to room, cell phone to a cell tower, CB radio in a big truck on the highway, PDAs and cell phones accessing the Internet, a walkie-talkie, a mother’s baby monitor sitting next to the crib, or an airplane cockpit crew’s radio system, etc. transmit or broadcast on at least one “carrier” signal assigned by the FCC as a fixed frequency. Through a process called “modulation,” audio signal of talking, singing, or playing an instrument is piggybacked onto the transmitter’s fixed carrier frequency. We won’t go into that subject because it doesn’t pertain to this blog.

Let’s say an FM radio channel has call letters of “WNOC 99.9 FM.” That is 99.9 MHz (megahertz) or 99,900,000 Hertz (cycles per second). The 99.9 label is a radio channel’s fixed “carrier” frequency. Almost all commercial FM channels are near the same “range” as VHF (2 to 13) TV channels, although TV carrier frequencies also have a variety of video signals modulated onto them. Radio Shack even carried a portable radio that could play FM radio and the audio of VHF TV channels. Older VHF wireless mic and guitar systems were also in this range but were susceptible to too much radio interference.

UHF TV channel carrier frequencies were located in a much higher “range” which is the one we’re most interested in for this hub because 700 MHz UHF wireless mic and guitar systems are also in that same range of the airwaves.

The Problem At Hand

The FCC was created many decades ago to regulate and control public “airwaves” and assign how they would be used to avoid everybody using any carrier frequency they wanted for whatever purpose. The FCC grouped areas of the public airwaves for certain kinds of transmissions and when someone applied for a license to broadcast they were assigned a frequency in the proper band (range) where the transmitter continued to operate until the license of the owner expired. The transmitter’s license can move from one owner to another if the station was sold. If there was a commercial FM radio station at 99.9 MHz in 1960, there very likely is still a station at that same carrier frequency today because bands or ranges of frequencies virtually never move… at least until 2009.

The FCC is funded by government monies, has rules and regulations they are supposedly required to abide by, and has historically been assigned the function of keeping order of all things broadcast and educating those who transmitted or broadcast signals so they didn’t violate FCC rules of operation.

HAM radio set operators, television transmitter engineers, radio transmitter engineers, and many others were required to pass very hard written tests to become Class 3, 2, or 1 Operators with extra endorsements available for specialties. The Classes are categories of learned knowledge about different types of transmitting equipment and theories of operation…. extreme levels of knowledge of numbers, formulas, and theories in fact.

After I graduated from college with a degree in electronics engineering technology I tried desperately to get a Class 2 FCC license to work in a television station and failed it three times even after studying as hard as I knew how. I’d drive 60 miles to the Federal building with my brain packed full and fail miserably. I finally gave up and went into electronics research that didn’t require an operator’s license.

The FCC Failed The American Public Before When Outsiders Took Control

Prior to the mid-1970s, if a CB radio enthusiast (over the age of 14) wanted to transmit on CB (citizen band) carrier frequencies, they had to pass a reasonably easy CB Operator test about the proper use of a CB radio transmitter and would be issued an FCC license to do so. They were assigned official operator’s call letters and were supposed to use it when transmitting.

In the early-1970s plastic walkie-talkie radios came along that transmitted on CB radio channel 14. Because they were low power “consumer” radios for non-CB radio use the FCC didn’t require a license to operate them. They were meant for use in your yard, in your house, on your farm, etc. and had limited transmitting distance. They theoretically wouldn’t interfere with the CB radio band where an operator’s license was required. But the FCC blew it here and the electronics manufacturers took control of the airwaves.

A walkie-talkie could push the 1-watt limit because of manufacturers’ desire to have the longest range. Tinkering electronic nerds also got inside to make walkie-talkies transmit twice as much power. Inferior CB radios meant to transmit 3 to 4 watts could feasibly only be producing 2 watts – making the two units operate virtually identical. Walkie-talkies started showing up with two, three, or four channels that were CB designated.

Kids with walkie-talkies could easily talk to and interrupt licensed CBers. Unlicensed users driving two or more cars to the same destination used walkie-talkies (or CB radio units belonging to friends) to talk to each other during the trip because there weren’t any cell phones – further interrupting licensed CBers. Unlicensed abusers started borrowing CB radios from friends to go on trips. Every retailer in the country sold CB radios to just about anybody – licensed or not.

The FCC should have intimidated walkie-talkie and CB manufacturers into using very different frequencies back in the beginning, putting them in different frequency “ranges” so CB licenses would continue to mean something. But by not watching the industry closely enough, and probably not even understanding what an avalanche-type consumer fad is, the FCC allowed the total ruination of the CB radio “band” by electronics manufacturers.

As the fanatical CB fad took hold the FCC didn’t have enough manpower to patrol the U.S. with snooping equipment to find and penalizing unlicensed users. They also only found a tiny portion of the unlicensed CB abusers who adapted 50 to 1,000 watt HAM radio power boosters to CB radios, locked their microphones on for hours, and sang old black gospel songs on the radio wiping out as many as 8 of the 23 channels across several states.

The FCC’s budget was far too small to hire enough agents to handle this wave of insanity. To save face, and pretend they still had control, the FCC dropped CB operator licenses – supposedly of benefit for those who wanted in on the craze.

This was a case of manufacturers and a public fad controlling the FCC instead of the other way around… and in my opinion aggressive manufacturers with billions of dollars have done it again.

The FCC’s True Function Is Regulation and Control

The FCC was created mostly to organize and assign carrier frequencies to licensed users of transmitters.  Transmitters have historically been assigned to “ranges” of carrier frequencies.  The “ranges” are informally named the “wireless phone band,” “the police and fire band,” “the military radio band,” “the VHF television band,” “the FM radio band,” “the AM radio band,” and other such easily recognized categories.

The FCC has historically had field agents in major cities who assured that carrier frequencies were used properly so transmitters didn’t adversely affect other transmitters.   The FCC also found new carrier frequencies for singular applicants requesting room to broadcast their signals.  Frequencies were found between existing frequencies for newcomers so the frequency “range” didn’t get any bigger.

But on January 20, 2010 the personality and function of the FCC changed forever.  A government agency funded by taxpayer monies is selling our public airwaves to the highest commercial bidders.  On that date the FCC stated that wireless microphones, guitar systems, personal ear monitors, and any other equipment operating in the 700MHz range must stop operating by June 12, 2010.

Almost three years of meetings with wireless manufacturers who demanded to be heard fell on deaf ears.  The FCC is (as of this writing) determining who will be worthy of operating in the 700 MHz range.  The worthy ones are actually already known because the FCC is SELLING the 700MHz range to computer and telecommunication giants who will use it for the next generation of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and don’t want any interference in their purchased frequency band from anyone whose equipment resided there before they bought it.

Read that again:  The FCC sold “public airwaves” and pocketed billions of dollars.  The government is selling airspace that the public actually owns.  They now claim that the government owns the public airwaves so they can justify doing with it what they desire – such as sell it.

Never in history has the FCC SOLD a whole range of frequencies they don’t own to the private sector commercial businesses for billions of dollars and told current users they must leave immediately or be fined and possibly jailed.  I believe if someone with legal knowledge of these things were to study this situation they’d find something very wrong.

Pastor Smith down at the local Baptist church may be in the middle of his sermon and FCC agents burst in, yank a wireless mic out of his hand, and take him to jail.  A Ref at the local football game is making a call and FCC agents burst onto the field dragging him away for using an illegal wireless microphone.  Maybe even a teen-aged McDonald’s drive-thru employee could be snatched away and jailed while they’re taking your order…  These scenarios seem ridiculous but knowing how government agencies act sometimes, they’re actually feasible.

To further confuse the issue, would the FCC jail or stiffly penalize the purchaser/owner of the wireless system, the secretary who innocently flipped a power switch to make the sound system come on before church services start, the user of the wireless mic or wireless instrument such as the Pastor or a lecturing clinician, the soundman who runs the sound system, the owner of the venue where the violation took place, or all of them?  Even the FCC says they don’t know… yet.  But you can be sure the new owners of the 700 MHz frequency band will input.

Apparently the FCC thought they would only inconvenience a few hundred faceless wireless users to open up a new range of frequencies that benefit multi-billion-dollar AT&T, Verizon, Google, and other commercial purchasers.  In reality they are inconveniencing millions of nameless wireless users, every entertainment venue, every large sound company, every sound rental company, every medium to large church, every soundman, every band with wireless guitars and mics, exercise directors in aerobic clubs, and the list goes on and on and on.

Unfortunately the manufacturers and those who sold wireless units to venues, churches, and retail customers are going to get blamed for the horrific results of the FCC’s enforcement of this decision when wireless units stop working or get so much interference from PDAs that they won’t work correctly.

So Why Is This Happening Now After All These Years?

It’s to do with the conversion from analog TV transmissions to digital last year.  The conversion was completed on June 12, 2009.  Now that all stations are broadcasting DTV in a different range or band, the 698 MHz to 806MHz range known as the 700 MHz Band no longer contains television stations.  I personally suspicion that the switch over to DTV from analog TV, that cost the American public untold mega-millions to accomplish, was forced upon us specifically to open up the 700 MHz band for communication and computer giants to buy.  DTV was on its way anyway, some stations were changing over to stay on the cutting edge, but the FCC forced the switch to happen much faster and that seems fishy to me.

Because the old analog television channel carrier frequencies were fairly far apart in the 700 MHz band so they would never interfere with each other, wireless audio manufacturers found there was plenty of airwave space between TV stations to put wireless mic and guitar system carrier frequencies that only carried audio signals between the television station carrier frequencies.  This was perfectly legal and FCC approved.

But as soon as the DTV conversion was complete and analog TV channels were obsolete, wireless mic and guitar system carrier frequencies were no longer tucked neatly between TV channels.  With the majority of the 700 MHz band cleared off it was just a matter of the FCC getting rid of any residue users that could feasibly interfere with the operation of the next generation of PDAs that will now be used in the band.

I believe the violation of current wireless mic and guitar system users and manufacturers is by a government commission that is not a for-profit organization.  It is a commission funded by taxpayer monies to regulate, educate, and organize our country’s airwaves but it has sold a public airwave band that the government does not own to commercial communications corporations for $19.53 BILLION dollars.

There are reports surfacing that the largest of the three airwave band investors, Verizon Wireless, already has technicians out in the field with scanners searching out 700 MHz users and sending them cease and desist letters.  Apparently your, “Can you hear me now?” nerd is going to be carrying a parabolic antenna and snooping equipment from now on.

Wireless system manufacturers are trying to do what they can for end users with rebate programs of up to $1000 to buy a new unit and dump the old one.  Some have programs to turn old units in for credit toward new ones.  Manufacturers are losing money big time to help the situation so consumers are not angry at them.  The anger of consumers should be directed toward the FCC.  The FCC, from the $19.53 billion dollars they have pocketed, should purchase new wireless systems for all 700 MHz users who turn one in to be destroyed.  We had cash for clunkers that cost the taxpayers billions, so why not a cash for wireless clunkers program that comes out of the windfall profits the FCC has acquired?

Two Dangers To Audio Wireless Consumers

Two possible dangers exist for audio wireless buyers over the next year or more:

  1. Some retailers won’t tell naïve buyers about the 700 MHz situation and will sell the offending units to dump stock anyway instead of getting stuck with them in inventory.  It's likely that manufacturers would allow them to be returned for credit but some retailers won't know that or want to spend the shipping to send them back.
  2. E-Bay and Craig’s List will be flooded with 700 MHz units that will seem to be really good deals to the uninformed, people will buy them while not knowing the details of the cease and desist orders of the FCC, so they will purchase unusable equipment and lose their money completely.

How can this be stopped? It can’t. Nobody in this administration is going to turn down a $20 billion windfall so the plan will continue at the expense of everyone who has a 700 MHz band wireless unit of any kind.

What can you do to help yourself? If you must have a new unit immediately go to the websites of your favorite brands and find out what units they are selling that comply with the new FCC ruling. Only buy those models and none other. If you don’t need a wireless system right away – wait until this is all over. After June 12, 2010 comes and goes, I’d wait at least 6 months to see how things work out and see what new technologies come into being.

Digital wireless technology has been in existence for quite some time but most companies have chosen to stick with old style carrier frequencies with FM audio modulation. Time will tell if more manufacturers will take the step toward digital now that there is a major changeover occurring in wireless technology anyway.


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