The email blast from the head of my son and daughter’s theater group relayed a frantic plea: “We need to raise $16,000 before the upcoming spring performances,” Anya Wallach, the executive director of Random Farms Kids’ Theater, in Westchester, New York, wrote in late May. If the money didn’t materialize in time, she warned, there could be a serious problem with the shows: nobody would hear the actors.
Random Farms, and tens of thousands of other theater companies, schools, churches, broadcasters, and myriad other interests across the country, need to buy new wireless microphones. The majority of professional wireless audio gear in America is about to become obsolete, and illegal to operate. The story of how we got to this strange point involves politics, business, science, and, of course, money.
Four years ago, in an effort to bolster the country’s tech infrastructure, the FCC decreed that the portion of the radio spectrum used by most wireless mics would be better utilized for faster and more robust mobile broadband service. Now, as the telecom companies that won the rights to that spectrum begin to use it, the prior tenants are scrambling for new radio-frequency homes.
The dispossessed are a diverse and varied lot. Wireless mics are near ubiquitous in modern life, in our schools—think lecture halls and pep rallies—our offices, our hotels and meeting halls, our entertainment venues, musical and theatrical tours, our houses of worship, and our radio and television broadcasts.
Replacing them will not be cheap. Even small community or school theaters can use 30 or more microphones, which, including ancillary gear, can cost $1,000 or more apiece. “I’ll need to replace at least 24 mics, which will cost at least 24 grand,” says Brian Johnson, artistic director of the theater program at La Habra High School, in California. The Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, DC, will spend $50,000 on new mics, says Tom Haygood, their director of production.
Behind the scenes, the stagehands responsible for moving sets, rigs, curtains, and the like also use wireless communications devices. Nearly every director I spoke with said that regardless of their theater’s financial condition, they’re immediately replacing this gear out of safety concerns. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Haygood says he’s already spent another $45,000 on headsets for backstage personnel. The combined expense will hamper many companies’ ability to pay for musicians, costumes, and sets. “Basically, we will be robbing Peter to pay Paul,” one director told me. By the time the switchover is supposed to be complete, in July 2020, the total tab could top $100 million.
For commercial broadcasters, and other corporate users, replacing wireless gear won’t be a financial strain. But it’s a pending crisis for nonprofit theaters, which generally rely on ticket sales and donations to survive. Many school theater programs will have to appeal to their community, as their districts don’t often fund such a capital expense. “The idea of going to a school board and asking for money to replace audio equipment is a non-starter,” says Jim Palmarini, of the Educational Theatre Association, a national organization of school theater programs. He says half of the group’s members rely solely on box-office revenue. Most community theaters don’t have any hope of municipal help, and as nonprofits few of them have the resources to easily cover such a large outlay. That’s why, Wallach told me, she sent her panicked email asking for funds.
Wireless audio, like all wireless communication, operates by sending and receiving signals on specific frequencies in the radio spectrum. Each part of the RF spectrum has different characteristics, better suited for particular uses. The low-end waves, such as AM radio, are very weak, but can travel many miles. On the high end, home to x-rays, waves are intensely powerful but don’t travel far. It’s the juicy part in the middle that’s so desirable for communications devices, making claims for every frequency in that range competitive.
The problem is there’s only so much of this desirable spectrum to go around, with numerous uses—phones, tablets, digital TV signals, GPS, baby monitors, Bluetooth devices—staking claims. To control the virtual landscape, the government dictates which devices, types of use, or even individual companies, can operate at which frequencies. So it’s no surprise that the allocation of frequencies is political, and can favor interests with the most money or influence.
It’s a case of electronic eminent domain, yet without government recompense.
The upheaval around wireless mics can be traced to the National Broadband Plan of 2010, where, on the direction of Congress, the FCC declared broadband “a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.” Two years later, in a bill best known for cutting payroll taxes, Congress authorized the FCC to auction off additional spectrum for broadband communications. In 2014, the FCC determined it would use the 600 MHz band— where most wireless microphones operate—to accomplish that goal.
The auction began in 2016 and continued into 2017. T-Mobile, the largest purchaser of the reallocated spectrum, spent close to $8 billion, and is using it to increase its LTE coverage and to lay the foundation for its 5G network. Wireless mic users have until July 2020, at the latest, to vacate the 600 MHz band. But T-Mobile began taking over its acquired spectrum in certain regions in August 2017. In a sort of electronic eminent domain, yet without government recompense, prior users of those frequencies must vacate their airwave real estate once T-Mobile or other auction winners move in, rendering all or most of their current gear useless. T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment.
T-Mobile has been updating its rollout plans online, but there’s still broad uncertainty about the details, and many would rather be safe than sorry. At Random Farms, Wallach’s audio engineer, Randy Taber, advised her that T-Mobile was slated to flip the switch in her region toward the end of this year, and had begun testing in the area. So she and others are opting to purchase new mics now, than risk being too late and having a blast of static radiate from the theater’s speakers just as Dorothy opens her mouth to sing “Over the Rainbow.”
Other spectrum purchasers at the 600 MHz auction, including Dish and Comcast, are not yet using their frequencies. Government rules allow spectrum holders a decade or more to “build out” their services. A Dish spokesperson says the spectrum is intended for “our 5G future,” but it’s not yet using the spectrum because TV broadcasters haven’t yet vacated those frequencies. Comcast did not respond to a request for comment.
The shift is especially difficult because this is the second time in less than 10 years that wireless mics are being evicted from their frequency home. A decade ago, many wireless mics were designed to operate in the 700 MHz band. But in 2010 the FCC auctioned off much of that range for wireless broadband and public-safety uses, forcing out many wireless mics. Many theaters then spent tens of thousands of dollars on new gear, only now to be told that they have to purchase new gear again.
The problem of continually being kicked off one’s electronic land is not only financial, but logistical.
That will further strain relations with school boards and benefactors. At Hightstown High School in New Jersey, the district paid $39,500 for new gear that operated outside of the 700 MHz band, which became off limits for wireless mics after June 2010. “I do not believe going back to the school at this time would be productive,” says Tallen Olsen, the school’s director of choral music and theater. “They believe they ‘fixed’ the problem the first time.” Nevertheless, Olsen will appeal again, if for no other reason than to make officials aware of the problem. Olsen said he’ll likely buy mics individually over a number of years, taking money directly out of the show budget, and hope for the best.
A number of theaters choose to rent gear, at great annual expense, out of fear that the government will once again change the rules. Sean Warner, operations manager at the Arts High School, in Newark, New Jersey, told me, “we purposely rent every year, in part due to this issue.” But renting can be fiscally unsound for many theaters. Years ago, until he finally got funds to purchase equipment, Olsen used to spend $5,000 per show renting audio gear, which left his program barely able to break even.
The problem of continually being kicked off one’s electronic land is not only financial, but logistical. As the available space for wireless mics shrinks, it also becomes more crowded. Years ago, most wireless mics operated on the wide-open prairie of 470 to 806 MHz. After the two auctions, it’s now just 470 to 608. (There is a small number of frequencies elsewhere on the spectrum where wireless mics technically can work, but most come with performance tradeoffs or other restrictions making them essentially unavailable for many users.) With fewer available frequencies, interference becomes an increasing problem. It’s as if homesteaders were swept off their rural lands and confined to a single city neighborhood.
In response, the FCC began granting special licenses to certain users, giving them control over designated frequencies at set times in a set location. But the license rule has a quirk: Only users who have 50 or more devices are eligible. In the theater world, only the biggest productions, primarily Broadway, reach that number. It excludes many community and school theaters, as well as some theatrical and musical tours, entertainment venues, schools, and churches.
By contrast, the broadcast of an NFL game can use 150 to 200 channels for announcers, production staff, stadium personnel, the halftime show, and the referees’ mics, says Henry Cohen, senior RF systems design engineer for CP Communications, which provides communication services for broadcasts. “We get temporary authority from the FCC all the time” to use spectrum, Cohen explained, because “what’s available now isn’t even enough for these large events.”
Still, Cohen says the auction has created “a nightmare.” Beyond buying new equipment, which the networks and the leagues can afford, are the logistics, keeping track of which equipment can go to which part of the country, during the transition.
Laurie Baskin, of the Theatre Communications Group, which represents not-for-profit theaters around the country, has petitioned the FCC to drop the 50-device requirement, to allow others besides just the big business interests to protect frequencies as well. That could help the nation’s several thousand not-for-profit theaters.
Ironically, many Broadway productions don’t even bother to use licenses. Engineers at one of the top firms that handle audio for Broadway shows told me that the audio techs from the shows informally coordinate to make sure they don’t interfere with each other, rather than complicating matters by involving the FCC.
In the end, there isn’t an easy answer to RF allocation. The government certainly should be doing a better job of protecting smaller users of spectrum, including wireless audio. Forcing upwards of 30,000 community and school theaters to repeatedly spend tens of thousands of dollars, for many a crippling amount of money out of their limited budgets, is a dramatic, but quiet, assault on the arts.
“Imagine if athletics had a problem, like if helmets needed to be replaced,” a high school theater director in California told me. “The school would likely step in to help buy new equipment. But for a $30,000 mic problem, schools will simply say, ‘Figure it out.’”
David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.