Colleges and universities that use wireless microphones operating on the 700 megahertz (MHz) frequency band have until June 12 to change the radio frequency or buy new equipment, according to a Jan. 15 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC’s decision is part of a larger government effort to clear the 700 MHz band for use by cell phones, digital TV transmissions, and emergency communications. About 25 percent of the country’s wireless microphones will have to be modified or replaced, according to federal projections.
The ruling affects schools, colleges, sports stadiums, churches, theater groups, musicians, and others who rely on wireless microphones to amplify sound. Some colleges using wireless mics to help their instructors or performers be heard more clearly could end up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to replace the banned equipment.
Violating the FCC’s order could result in penalties and fines, although the extent of this punishment isn’t yet known. Manufacturers of wireless microphones say many schools are unaware of the frequency change and its potential impact.
“I think a lot of people are still pretty vague on what’s going to happen” after the FCC’s June deadline passes, said Paul Harris, CEO of Aurora Multimedia, a New Jersey-based company that makes wireless microphones and has customers in higher education.
Schools “are probably going to keep using [the 700 MHz band] until it becomes a problem,” Harris said, adding: “If it’s not causing any problems, why should they have to stop using it?”
Harris said his company’s education customers won’t have to adjust to the new federal rules, because Aurora microphones use Bluetooth technology, avoiding use of the now-prohibited wireless spectrum.
Some microphone manufacturers, like California-based Califone, have launched blogs that explain which products fall within the new federal rules.
Tim Ridgway, a Califone spokesman, said the company recently switched former 700-megahertz products to the 900 megahertz frequency. Other Califone products, like the Installed Audio System, use infrared signals.
“We have followed this issue very closely since Califone products are so integral to the functioning of schools across the country,” Ridgway said.
The FCC has posted a list of companies and products that will violate its new 700 MHz rules. The product list is lengthy and includes hundreds of model numbers from more than a dozen manufacturers, as well as information about whether these devices can be modified to abide by the new guidelines.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the 700 MHz ruling will promote next-generation wireless technology and clear the airwaves for police and firefighters.
“Our decision will accelerate the buildout of 4G wireless networks and will prevent interference with first responders who rely on the 700-megahertz band for mission-critical communications,” Genachowski said in a prepared statement.
The FCC’s decision came two years after a complaint filed by consumer groups accused many users of wireless microphones of unwittingly violating FCC rules that require government licenses for the 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. (See “Filing amplifies concerns over wireless mics.”)
Many of the most common suppliers of wireless microphones and sound amplification systems to schools, such as Anchor Audio, Audio Enhancement, Califone, Calypso Systems, and Extron Electronics, do not appear on the FCC’s list. One company that does is Shure, which says on its web site that it will provide rebates of up to $1,000 for each new wireless system purchased when a 700 MHz system is returned.
Harris said a more public notice will be needed to grab wireless microphone users’ attention in the coming months.
The FCC is “leaving it up to you to know these things are magically changing,” he said, adding that the economic downturn could be a barrier for schools that need to buy or adjust microphones to fit federal rules.
The FCC held an auction last year to sell off parts of the 700 MHz band. Verizon paid more than $9 billion for part of the band, and AT&T paid $6.6 billion.
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