How do you make actors heard 50 rows back? How do you make them heard as they sing over an orchestra? How do you make them heard as they mutter conspiratorially to themselves?
The answer to all these: wireless microphones. Large theatres (and even many small ones) rely on this technology to make sure audiences hear every word of a performance. Unless something goes wrong with the equipment, like interference, most audience members don’t even think about what makes it possible. But many U.S. resident theatres worry that interference in their systems might increase, and it’s out of their hands. It’s in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission.
To understand why, you need to understand how these devices work. Wireless microphones turn audio signals into radio waves and transmit those signals through the air to receivers nearby. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation with frequencies between 3 kilohertz (3,000 hertz) and 300 gigahertz (300 billion hertz). Those numbers will be important later.
The benefits of wireless microphones were immediately obvious to theatres. If microphones followed the actors, the technology would produce better sound quality. As the devices got smaller, more reliable, and more cost-effective, their use spread. These days a Broadway production will likely have more than 50 microphones running each night. And they aren’t just used for actors; backstage crews also rely on them to stay in constant contact with each other as they call cues and move sets during the show. Assisted-listening devices that serve hearing-impaired patrons use wireless technology as well.
With so many microphones in the mix, a production has to coordinate their use or the audience might hear interference from other technology. That means each microphone in a production is set to a specific frequency. This also helps keep theatres in close proximity from interfering with each other.
But these frequencies are just a small ecosystem inside a much larger one. Radio waves are broadcast across the entire planet, by hundreds of thousands of entities and individuals, and many with far stronger equipment.
In 1965 the United Nations formed the International Telecommunication Union to regulate the use of the electromagnetic spectrum across the planet. Each country in the UN has a government agency that controls how the spectrum is used within its borders. In the U.S. we have the FCC, which allocates use to state and local governments plus science and business organizations.
For much of their existence, television stations operated between 300 (300 million hertz) and 700 megahertz in the electromagnetic spectrum, in an area called the ultra high frequency (UHF). Each TV station is licensed to operate at a specific frequency. TV viewers see this as each individual channel. If two television channels use frequencies too close to each other they might cause interference during their broadcasts, so there has to be a buffer between them—unused frequencies. These buffer zones are called “white space.”
In the 1970s, manufacturers of wireless microphones began to adapt their equipment to operate in this white space. Most systems operated in the top of the spectrum (700 megahertz), because it provided the best sound quality. These wireless microphones weren’t eligible to be licensed, but the FCC allowed them to operate there because they weren’t powerful enough to cause interference with television stations.
For decades this was the status quo. Then in 2008 the FCC opened up white space to other commercial operations. Tech companies had been developing “white space devices”—electronics that send and receive data in white space—and were eager to get them in use. The most prominent application of this technology is providing wireless internet.
Large rural swathes of the country still don’t have the infrastructure for high-speed internet, and service providers don’t see it as cost-effective to install it. This means that around 24 million Americans live in areas without access to fast, reliable online service. This is where these new white space devices have begun to see use: Radio waves in the white spaces are far more powerful than traditional wireless hotspots, and walls don’t interfere with them.
But—do you see where this is going?—this presents a problem for wireless microphone users, because white space devices create interference when they’re in close proximity. And because wireless microphones were unlicensed, they didn’t have protection from other devices encroaching on their white space.
This move by the FCC caught the attention of nonprofit service organization Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the publisher of this magazine, and the Performing Arts Alliance (PAA), a coalition of arts service organizations that advocates for nonprofit arts organizations before Congress and federal agencies. “The coalition was founded to coordinate efforts, find consensus about our issues and positions on those issues, and represent a larger collective of members that could be moved to action together,” says Laurie Baskin, TCG’s director of Research, Policy & Collective Action. TCG recently organized the Performing Arts Wireless Microphone Working Group to advocate as a coalition of performing arts service organizations on this issue.
More than a decade ago TCG joined the Coalition of Wireless Microphone Users, which included professional sports leagues, commercial theatres, performing arts service organizations, a religious organization, and various news outlets. The two coalitions scheduled numerous meetings at the FCC, submitted comments and ex parte letters, and held demonstrations for FCC officials; all of these combined efforts resulted in the agency revising its decision. This development allowed unlicensed wireless microphone users to continue using white space and proposed to offer them protection from white space devices by creating geolocation databases. Users could register their needs in the database and list the time, location, and frequencies they would be using. White space devices were designed to check the database in real time to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with microphones in their area.
But then there was a sea change in broadcasting technology, which had unintended consequences for the future of white space. In 2009 U.S. television stations switched from analog to digital broadcasting (you might remember having to replace your television or buy an adapter). Digital broadcasting uses a lot less frequency than analog, so television stations suddenly took up a lot less space.
With a little rearranging this space made prime real estate, and unlicensed wireless microphone users were suddenly seen as squatters. “It became a farmers-vs.-cattleman range war,” says Dave Pawlik, a communications, media, and entertainment lawyer who works with TCG. The FCC ordered wireless microphone users to vacate the 700 megahertz band, and that frequency was sold off in an auction to telecom companies. Most wireless microphone users moved down to the 600 megahertz band.
Wireless microphones are designed to operate on specific frequencies, not the entire range of the radio spectrum, so this move meant a lot of equipment became obsolete all around the country. Many organizations needed to purchase entirely new systems, spending anywhere from $25,000 to $130,000. This is a capital expense for an arts organization—not easy to scrape up quickly.
The geolocation database for white space devices went live at the end of 2012, but earlier that year Congress had authorized the FCC to repackage the spectrum and auction off the 600 megahertz range. The white space that wireless microphones had moved into was about to disappear again.
Digital television stations can operate closer to each other than analog stations, so white space between stations was going to shrink too. All this compression risked increasing the possibility of wireless microphone users coming into contact with each other and white space devices.
In 2014 the FCC decided to restrict use of the geolocation database to only the largest users of wireless microphones. These users were made eligible to apply for a license under existing rules known as “Part 74,” which historically has been reserved for broadcast entities like TV and radio stations. But to qualify for a license, an organization had to use 50 or more wireless microphones on a regular basis. So only a few of the largest theatres in the country qualified under this ruling. All the others were not allowed to access the geolocation database that would grant them protection from interference.
While TCG continued to lobby the FCC, the agency began its second incentive auction, from March 29, 2016, to March 30, 2017, and T-Mobile ended up with the largest part of the spectrum. The federal government made $19.8 billion from the auction.
Despite the sale there were still theatres with wireless microphone systems using the 600 megahertz range after the auction, hoping to delay another capital expense. They had some breathing room, as many auction winners didn’t have plans to take immediate control of the new spectrum nationwide; they have until 2021 to claim it.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was one of those wait-and-see companies. “During the summer nights we’ll have over 50 wireless microphones in use,” says Josh Horvath, OSF’s sound department manager. “But typically we aren’t using them every day. And every year is different. This year is a big season for wireless microphones. Next year it might only be the outdoor space. It’s a challenge to prove it.”
All of the company’s microphones were in the 600 megahertz frequencies. “We’re in a rural area, so we didn’t worry that much,” says Horvath. “But then we got notice that T-Mobile had decided to roll out their new services in rural areas first.”
This included Ashland, the home of Oregon Shakes. The company had to scramble to purchase new equipment, which totaled more than $130,000. It was a huge hit financially for the theatre, especially after smoke from Southern Oregon wildfires cost the organization around $2 million that summer.
At long last, in response to filings by TCG and other performing arts organizations, the FCC opened a rule-making proceeding to consider expanding licensing to include theatre, music, performing arts, or similar organizations so they could qualify for a Part 74 license without meeting the threshold of 50 mics. The only objection to this expansion came from Microsoft, which has been invested in developing a rural broadband plan for more than a decade.
“The FCC is worried that if they open that door too wide, then anyone could get a license,” says Pawlik. “But they are looking for a way to draw the line that will satisfy the Administrative Procedure Act.” The APA governs how federal agencies set regulations to ensure they are not “arbitrary and capricious.”
Baskin is sure a common-sense approach would work. “An organization has to have the capacity to purchase and operate this equipment,” she notes. “It will be a self-selecting group of organizations.” She points out that under the current rules, even a major New York theatre like Manhattan Theatre Club does not qualify for a license. “Theatres will still need sound equipment. They can’t go back to wired microphones. What would that do to the quality of performances?”
It’s possible to rent microphone systems for productions, and these tend to come with licenses to operate them. But Baskin says that’s cost-prohibitive, and not even possible in all parts of the country.
Every time a government agency proposes a change to the regulations it oversees, the change must be put up for public comment. TCG began collecting support letters from arts organizations around the country. Since theatres, operas, symphonies, and dance companies represent a $7.8 billion dollar industry annually, it’s hoped the FCC will pay attention to this important sector.
The Performing Arts Wireless Microphone Working Group has gotten a lot of support from wireless mic manufacturers as well, such as Sennheiser and Shure. “They want to sell microphones,” says Pawlik. “If there’s no space for them to operate, then they can’t do that.” But the FCC has been pushing manufacturers to improve the technology. “The best wireless microphones are still analog. The companies haven’t been able to move to digital without latency issues.”
Public comment closed in 2017, but the FCC has remained silent on the future of white space. “I think they’re waiting for someone to complain about interference,” says Pawlik. “There is no timeline that they need to rule by.”
Meanwhile, the repackaging of the radio spectrum continues and white space continues to dry up. “It’s harder to find frequencies that work,” says Horvath. “We set all the microphones for use that day in the morning. But by the time the evening rolls around, before the shows, they have interference.”
TCG is trying to look ahead. While white space devices are still not in common use, partly due to the higher prices of emerging technology, everyone expects costs to go down as the technology continues to develop. And the devices might expand beyond stationary Wi-Fi spots. “Mobile white space devices are still in research and development,” says Baskin. “With the release of more spectrum, this has created new possibilities for them.” It’s impossible to predict how technology might change and impact the field.
Even if the FCC expands protections for wireless microphones, the future still isn’t certain. “We don’t own the frequencies,” says Horvath. “They could take them away again. We have no power at all.”
To keep up with the status of white space and the FCC, go to tcg.org/Advocacy/LegislativeIssues/FCCWhiteSpace.aspx.
Portland, Ore.-based writer TJ Acena is a member of the Rising Leaders of Color Program’s 2017 cohort.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!