29 September 2007

The 700 Club

On January 28th, 2008, a chunk of the sky is going away.

The FCC will officially open bidding on this date for the 700 Mhz band of the RF broadcast spectrum. Since the US is mandated to finish transitioning to a digital broadcast infrastructure by 2009 (yes, this means that your ol' Zenith nineteen-incher will no longer work without a set-top box), the folks in charge of something invisible, weightless and tasteless have decided to sell it.

What does this mean for the world of audio? Plenty, if you have Sennheiser wireless in the C block, or Lectrosonics in blocks 27-31 (which is quite a few folks out there). By all accounts, either the effective range will be greatly diminished or unusable in urban areas.

What happens to big shows that depend on a lot of wireless? Either they'll have to redesign how the show is shot (unlikely, given that many of these programs are popular and very profitable due to their low production costs), or audio companies will have to get more innovative with their wireless technologies.

Already, some companies (notably Zaxcom and Ricsonix) are developing digital systems, some of which operate in the 2.4 GHz range, using the Bluetooth protocol (yes, the same tech in your little Borg-style phone earpiece) or a similar variant, and Audio Technica recently announced a new, wide-band analog RF system that skirts the issue altogether.

What's being put in its place? A portion of the band has been allocated to emergency communications, but a good chunk is up for grabs (if you happen to have, say, $15 billion or so just laying around). Obviously, major telco companies are jockeying for position, looking to gain a foothold in the ever-expanding mobile wireless market, especially as people get used to having things like the interwebs and media delivered directly to their phones. Others, including Google, want to extend wireless internet access in metropolitan areas, via a "third-pipe" (alongside the traditional channels of broadband cable and DSL).

Now, I'm lucky enough to make a living as a freelance sound mixer, but I personally believe that every person on the planet should have internet access (along with, you know, clean drinking water, food, shelter, etc. But we're talking tech here, so..:). If that means that I have to get new gear, or come up with a more creative solution to limited available spectrum, so be it.

Having better access to the greatest repository of information since the Library of Alexandria can only help people; I, for one, greatly benefited from the internet. I never went to film school, but having access to volumes of information about sound and audio electronics gave me a foundation to begin the career I have today. If you ask any working professional out there, they'll tell you that they've learned a thing or two by having access to industry veterans, by way of online forums and the like.

Would things be easier if we could keep the freq's as they are? You betcha. But Uncle Sam says they're going away, and we all have to plan accordingly. As with all things, the only constant is change; this axiom is no more relevant than in a technology-based industry such as ours.

Article round up:

Ars-Technica; Wired's FAQ; Shure's White Space Info (very in-depth); Sports Video Group's press release (explains considerable use of wireless by pro sports); Apple Eyes Wireless Auction (via businessweek.com); What DTV Means to Wireless Microphone Users.

But this blog takes the cake for spectrum info: publicknowledge.org.

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