Understanding the 600 MHz Auction
by Daron James
If you’re a Sound Engineer operating in the United States, you’ve probably heard about the recent Broadcast Incentive Auction held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which will repurpose a portion of the UHF TV band.
What is the Broadcast Incentive Auction?
The FCC held a two-phase auction which ended in March 2017. The portion of the UHF TV band directly impacted was the 600 MHz band or more precisely, 614 MHz-698 MHz (84 MHz). The FCC dubbed this initiative the “600 MHz Band Plan.”
The first phase was a “reverse auction” which gave television stations the opportunity to voluntarily relinquish their spectrum usage rights. This was followed by a “forward auction” that allowed mobile wireless and cable companies to place bids on the available spectrum. Afterward, the TV stations that will remain on air will be “repackaged” and assigned to new channels in the UHF TV band below 608 MHz.
What is different from this auction and the 700 MHz band auction?
Since 2010, the FCC prohibits the operation, manufacturing, import, sale, lease or shipment of wireless microphones and similar devices in the 700 MHz band (698 MHz-806 MHz). With the 600 MHz Band Plan, the FCC is allowing the operation and sales of wireless microphones and similar devices but with restrictions.
What part of the 600 MHz Band Plan is usable?
The 600 MHz band is comprised of four parts: a Guard Band (614 MHz-617 MHz), a Downlink Band (617 MHz-652 MHz), a Duplex Gap (652 MHz-663 MHz) and an Uplink Band (663 MHz-698 MHz).
Currently taking place is a ten-phase transition period that ends in July 13, 2020. After July 13, 2020, wireless devices will be restricted to operating only in the Guard Band (614 MHz-617 MHz) and Duplex Gap (652 MHz-663 MHz).
Are there any additional restrictions operating in the Guard Band and Duplex Gap?
Yes. The FCC has placed buffer, power limitations and license-type restrictions.
614 MHz-616 MHz: 2 MHz (unlicensed operators) 616 MHz-617 MHz: 1 MHz buffer (unavailable for use)
652 MHz-653 MHz: 1 MHz buffer (unavailable for use) 653 MHz-657 MHz: 4 MHz (exclusive to licensed operators) 657 MHz-663 MHz: 6 MHz (unlicensed and White Space Devices [WSD])
The Guard Band and Duplex Gap provide 12 MHz of spectrum. If you are a licensed operator, you have exclusivity in the Duplex Gap (653 MHz-657 MHz) and licensed users operating in this band must coordinate locally.
Keep in mind, even if you are a licensed user, you will be considered unlicensed while operating in the Guard Band (614 MHz-616 MHz) or upper portion of the Duplex Gap (657 MHz-663 MHz).
Power will be limited to 20mW for wireless devices and 40mW for white space devices.
What is a licensed operator?
A licensed operator is classified as Part 74 licensee and includes broadcasters, motion picture producers, cable stations and content creators. Part 90 licenses are reserved for industrial entities.
The FCC has now expanded Part 74 licenses to include professional sound companies and owners and operators of large venues that routinely use fifty or more wireless microphones or similar devices. Those who “routinely,” meaning not every time, use fifty or more wireless microphones, can be eligible for Part 74 licenses.
One advantage of becoming a Part 74 license user is that you can register for interference protection in the white space database against unlicensed white space devices.
Do I need to be a licensed operator to work in the repurposed 600 MHz?
You do not need to be a licensed operator, however, you are limited to only 6 MHz of space in the Duplex Gap (657 MHz-663 MHz).
While it’s not mandatory, if more Production Sound Mixers become licensed operators, 695 members and others will have a larger voice in the community that can directly impact future auctions.
When do these new rules take effect?
The transition period officially ends July 13, 2020, but you may run into radio frequency (RF) interference prior to the deadline. The new owners of the 600 MHz band have already begun registering use of the spectrum in the white space database.
How to check the white space database in your area.
There are several FCC-approved administrators you can search for available channels. Two suggestions are: Key Bridge Global and Spectrum Bridge.
Can you still buy equipment in the 600 MHz band?
Starting October 13, 2018, the manufacturing, sale, lease or shipment of wireless microphones or similar devices that operate in the 600 MHz service band frequencies (617 MHz-652 MHz and 663 MHz-698 MHz) will be prohibited in the United States.
After October 13, 2018, manufacturers, rental houses and others with equipment tuned in the 600 MHz band will be limited to the Guard Band and Duplex Gap.
Wireless microphone systems operating in the 600 MHz Guard Band or Duplex Gap will also be limited to 20mW.
What will happen to my current equipment?
Depending on the manufacturer, you should visit their website for further information about updating the software, “returning” the device or if they’re offering trade-in/rebates services to be compliant before July 13, 2020. After the deadline, it will be illegal for you to operate the device in the United States and you could face a fine.
What equipment can you buy with confidence while working in the United States?
Currently, any UHF TV band system that doesn’t tune above UHF TV Channel 36 (608 MHz) is best. Also in 2015, the FCC provided options for licensed users outside the TV broadcast band, including VHF 169 MHz-172 MHz band, portions of the 900 MHz band (941 MHz-960 MHz), the 1435 MHz-1525 MHz and the 6875 MHz-7125 MHz bands.
While these frequencies are available, they do not offer much practical use in the field. According to licensed Production Sound Mixer and PS&V contributor Jay Patterson CAS, the VHF bands can be problematic for body pack use, requiring longer antennas, but are a decent option for IFB. Patterson also mentions the transmitting restrictions on the licensed 900 MHz bands are in the early stages of what manufacturers can make at this time, and the 1435 MHz-1525 MHz and 6875 MHz-7125 MHz bands are extremely problematic for multiple reasons.
Unlicensed operators may run into similar issues as they are permitted in several bands outside of the TV bands, including the 902 MHz-928 MHz band, the 1920 MHz-1930 MHz band and portions of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. What are the key dates to remember? Starting October 13, 2018, purchasing, renting or leasing any wireless microphones or similar devices operating in the 600 MHz service band frequencies (617 MHz-652 MHz and 663 MHz-698 MHz) will be illegal.
Effective July 13, 2020, you will no longer be able to legally operate in the 600 MHz service band frequencies (617 MHz-652 MHz and 663 MHz-698 MHz), whether you are a licensed or unlicensed user. Again, while these dates are set by the FCC to complete the transition, you may run into radio frequency issues prior to the deadline.