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FCC evicts wireless mics from future 4G band

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The US Federal Communications Commission has ordered theaters, churches, schools, theme parks, and other wireless microphone users to vacate the 700 MHz band, that prime slice of American spectrum set to house the next generation of wireless broadband services.

On Friday, the FCC issued an order (PDF) prohibiting the distribution or sale of devices that operate at frequencies between 698 and 806 MHz, and anyone already using such devices in the band must leave with six months.

In a previous lifetime, the 700 MHz band was used primarily for television broadcasting, and over the years countless wireless microphones have popped up in the airwaves between TV stations. But the band has now been set aside for broadband services and public safety networks. The FCC auctioned the spectrum to broadband providers in 2008, and on June 12, 2009, the TV stations vacated in the switch to digital broadcasting.

Which leaves the wireless microphones. Some are licensed to operate under special FCC rules, but most are used without the proper licensing, something the FCC largely ignored in the past. Due in part to deceptive marketing practices from microphone manufacturers, some users may have been unaware that the devices were illegal with a license. This was also an issue in the separate swaths of TV "white space" spectrum set aside for a "WiFi on steroids" play first proposed by a consortium of tech outfits including Google and Microsoft.

With today's order, the FCC has granted legal status to all wireless mic users, but all must vacate the 700 MHz by June 12, exactly one year after the switch to digital TV. This includes users who were already licensed to use the band under the FCC's "Part 74" rules.

As part of its order, the Commission has also launched a website to help users determine whether their wireless mics are operating in the wrong band, and it will now require microphone manufacturers to properly alert buyers to the FCC licensing requirements. Consumers can call 1-800-CALL-FCC to ask additional questions.

"Our decision will accelerate the buildout of 4G wireless networks, and will prevent interference with first responders who rely on the 700 MHz Band for mission-critical communications," read a canned statement from FCC chair Julius Genachowski.

The FCC's order was praised by Public Knowledge, a consumer advocate that has petitioned the Commission to resolve the wireless mic problem. "We are particularly pleased that the Commission will implement new signage requirements to curtail the previous deceptive advertising practices by wireless microphone manufacturers. This is a Commission that puts the public first, even investing its own resources in unprecedented consumer outreach," reads a statement from Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge.

"We see the wireless microphone and white spaces issues as one part of a broad spectrum policy that will result in more spectrum being made available for new services and applications. As a result of this order, more spectrum will be available as well in the 700 MHz band for new services." ®

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