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How an auction for a wireless frequency is affecting high school and amateur theaters

David Brancaccio Aug 28, 2018
Nominees perform the opening number at the 2011 National High School Musical Theater Awards at The Minksoff Theatre in New York City. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

How an auction for a wireless frequency is affecting high school and amateur theaters

David Brancaccio Aug 28, 2018
Nominees perform the opening number at the 2011 National High School Musical Theater Awards at The Minksoff Theatre in New York City. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

About four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission decided that a specific slice of the radio spectrum would be reallocated for use in internet broadband services. The aim was to make mobile broadband services faster. The FCC then auctioned off this spectrum to a number of broadband companies that include T-Mobile, Comcast and Dish TV. 

This, however, also came at a cost — people, organizations and businesses across America lost access to this radio spectrum which they used for mostly wireless microphone services. Journalist David Zweig looked into the issue and wrote about how one specific group — school theater and amateur theater productions — will not only be losing access to a valuable resource but also may need to pay thousands of dollars for technological alternatives. 

Zweig spoke with David Brancaccio about his investigation published in WIRED. Below is an edited transcript:

David Brancaccio: So this starts with the Federal Communications Commission. Anybody just doesn’t get to take radio frequency, it gets auctioned off?

David Zweig: That’s right. You know, every device we use in our society when you think about your phone to GPS in your car to wireless microphones, everything operates on specific frequencies. And our government decides which devices, which types of use and even which specific companies get to use which frequencies in that spectrum.

Brancaccio: And that’s a limited resource so in certain cases it gets auctioned off to the high bidder. And so what happened? You’ve drawn a connection between the world of mobile phones and school theater?

Zweig: Yeah quite a connection, what do those have in common, right? This is one of those sort of little known consequences of our insatiable demand for more bandwidth ours as well as the large telecom companies. And most of the wireless microphones in our country, the majority of them roughly operate in the, what’s known as the 600 megahertz band. That’s just a stretch of radio frequency and a number of years ago the FCC under direction of Congress where they slipped it into that tax bill in 2012 giving them authorization to auction this off for broadband specifically and that’s not an accident. They say it has you know their motivation is to help our engine of our economy and to be competitive around the world.

Brancaccio: So we’re going to take a piece of the spectrum, this radio frequency and devote it to fast internet. And we’re going to auction it off except someone was using that frequency?

Zweig: That’s right. And the largest user [of that spectrum] were wireless microphones. And we might think that that’s just like a little niche interest but they’re actually ubiquitous in our culture when you think about [how] they’re in every sort of house of worship, when you talk about Mega Churches or even small ones. People use wireless microphones when you’re in the hotel industry or hospitality [or] corporate uses. But one of the biggest uses that people probably don’t think of is theater and specifically when you think about community theater or high school theaters, they could use 20 to 30 microphones at any one of these things and there are around a thousand dollars each and they’re all going to be obsolete and illegal to operate.

Brancaccio: So wait so the local production of it’s always going to be “Annie” and everyone’s got the headset mics so they’re little Taylor Swifts, they might not be able to use that equipment anymore?

Zweig: That is correct. So I got tipped off to the issue because my kids are in a theater program and the director of the program sent out sort of this panicked e-mail saying we need to raise about $16,000 to get new microphones. Otherwise we run the risk of the microphones not working at upcoming performances. And I was like this sounds really strange. Now this is my beat, technology and culture, and I wasn’t familiar with this and I started digging into it. And you know as a person I was dismayed but as a writer I’m like “this is a huge story about really almost a de facto assault on the arts in our country.” When you tally up what the bill is going to be nationally for all these theaters to have to get new gear because it’s all going to be obsolete.

Brancaccio: Well we can find some schools where $16,000 is chump change but there are a lot of public schools [where] that is not a trivial amount of money.

Zweig: That’s right and I interviewed more than a dozen, probably two dozen at least, theater directors around the country from different schools and also community theaters. And the bill can run $20,000, $30,000, [or] $50,000 and most school boards first of all don’t even fund these programs to begin with. They’re entirely reliant on ticket sales generally and you know philanthropic gifts. But even when they do fund it a little bit the notion of a theater director asking for $40,000 for microphones is just kind of a non-starter.

Brancaccio: If you buy a robust system it’s going to be around a thousand dollars per headset rig?

Zweig: Yeah, they’re are around a thousand hours you can find some for a few hundred dollars less and there are plenty for much more …

Brancaccio: But the thing is you need more than one?

Zweig: Right. Again most high schools do musical theater and that requires you know 20 mics and again, the thing that’s strange about this is it sounds like kind of a silly trivial issue but to me what’s fascinating about this story is that this is one of these kind of … I wouldn’t even say it’s unintended. They knew this was going to happen and they just didn’t really care. That our government values certain uses of our electromagnetic spectrum for certain things over others. And the analogies I like to make because it’s like real estate and this is sort of like this case of electronic eminent domain except there’s no government recompense. Normally a government reimburses you for taking away your stuff. So when you’ve just spent $30,000 on equipment and they’re saying “oh by the way, you can’t use that anymore throw it out and buy all new stuff.” That’s the scenario we’re in for a lot of nonprofits and for profit companies around the country.

Brancaccio: All right, so if young Sally in her tour de force role as Annie in the musical “Annie” can’t use the frequency anymore, who bought the frequency? It’s a company.

Zweig: Right. So T-Mobile spent around $8 billion on the spectrum in the auction. And there are a few other players who bought spectrum  Dish TV, Comcast and a few others  T-Mobile though is like by far and away the biggest. And they have until July of 2020 until sort of the switch gets flipped. But T-Mobile and the other winners are actually allowed to move into their new frequency homes whenever they want. So T-Mobile has been rolling out already around the country and it’s created a real chaos. They listed online but people don’t understand what’s happening. So no one knows at any given moment if their mics are going to be interfered with by cell phones and all of a sudden you know a little girl is going to open her mouth and instead of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” you’re going to be hit with you know just a wall of static.

Brancaccio: Now, was there a precedent for this David?

Zweig: There actually is an unfortunate precedent that a number of years ago, about eight to 10 years ago, there was a previous auction for the 700 megahertz spectrum. And you can take a guess what operated in that spectrum – wireless microphones! So not only are all these people getting hit with a huge bill to buy new equipment. A number of them just did this not that long ago. If you think of it like real estate they have all these different slices of spectrum real estate. Now they’re all squished into one neighborhood. It actually becomes really complicated to avoid interference and having your mics not work. And the interesting thing is to help this the government did something. They came up with the rule where you can license certain slices of spectrum for yourself, for a specific time and in a specific location. Oh that sounds great. Now I can protect myself so other people aren’t going to interfere with these mics we bought. So this is a great use or if you’re in church and you don’t want you know someone walking outside on their cell phone to cut into the sermon.

Well it turns out there’s one little wrinkle that the FCC added in for this license rule. You need to use at least 50 devices. So take a guess who uses 50 devices or more. It’s not a community theater, it’s not a high school theater, it’s not a church. It’s broadcasters because probably the largest user of wireless mics are actually TV and radio. When you think of an NFL broadcast they use between 150 or 200 different channels for a broadcast. For them, 50 [mics]? Not a problem. And they can afford it. So it just kind of adds insult. Everything about this is this sort of when we are are aware when the Government cuts funding for arts programs or when a school district does that’s obvious and people get up in arms about it but what people don’t realize is there’s all these kind of unseen or unknown assaults on the arts or other – not just the arts but just kind of “regular people” using devices in our society that get kind of swept to the side. And this is one of them. And the total bill [is] over $100 million we’re talking about here that regular people, nonprofits and schools are going to have to pay.

Brancaccio: So what about the place where you get the letter from that needed to raise $16,000, what was it a nonprofit?

Zweig: That’s right. Yes. The Random Farms Kids Theater in Westchester, New York.

Brancaccio: So have they reached their goal?

Zweig: They did reach their goal. So everyone is safe. When my son and daughter are on stage doing “Winnie the Pooh'”and “Seussical” their voices were heard but from talking with people around the country that’s not going to be the case. And you know, one of the directors told me it’s really kind of … even when they can buy the stuff, it’s really like a robbing Peter to pay Paul. People also don’t realize it’s not just the people on stage. It’s all the back of house people wearing these headsets and those all operate on wireless signals too. They all need to be replaced. So those have to be done and something’s going to suffer. It will be the costumes, it will be the you know the musical, you can’t hire as many musicians or whatever it may be. There’s only X amount of dollars to go around and when the government is forcing you to buy new equipment or saying you’re going to be breaking the law and it’s not going to work, that’s a problem. And it’s the second time this has happened and the bill I totaled is going to be at least $100 billion and it’s something that as far as I’m aware no one is talking about.

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