Wireless Systems and the Digital Conversion
Have you heard the rumors that your wireless system won’t work come June, or that it will be illegal? We set the story straight.
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The Distant Future: White Spaces & TVBDs
As one of the benefits of the digital switchover in June, the ending of analog television transmissions will leave a number of “white spaces” in the UHF frequency spectrum. The FCC will make these frequencies available for use by any number of emerging technologies, referred to by the FCC as Television Band Devices (TVBDs). As the name implies, these devices will operate in vacated television bands and include both fixed devices, such as stationary units delivering high-speed internet to rural areas over the air, and low-powered portable devices using wireless signals to expand their functionality (think of Bluetooth technologies, only with more kick).
This is exciting news for tech heads and consumers who want the most from their technology (“Imagine an iPhone that’s an order of magnitude better than what we have now,” says X2’s Boomer), but these TVBDs will also be operating in the same bands of frequencies as analog wireless units, both new and old. As you might expect, usage of these white spaces has the potential to increase interference for wireless device users, and audio companies like Shure, recognizing the threat, have been consistently and aggressively lobbying the FCC for guidelines on the operation of these devices.
The lobby effort seems to have paid off. The FCC has mandated that TVBDs include a range of features designed to limit or eliminate interference with existing, licensed wireless users, including spectrum sensing and adaptive power designs that reduce output power when used in environments populated by wireless devices. Unfortunately, these advanced technologies have a long way to go towards maturity, and the FCC has been fairly quiet on the issue, adding to the general sense of uncertainty hanging over both manufacturers and users. “A lot of [interference-avoidance technology] has not been demonstrated to be fully functional, so it’s going to be some time before these devices start showing up in the market,” says Gary Boss, Product Manager for Audio-Technica. “Frankly, everything we can do now is just hypothesizing about what the situation is going to be. It’s all in a state of flux.”
So what’s a wireless user to do? With the knowledge that TVBDs accessing the soon-to-be created “white spaces” are still a number of years away, and the assurance that the FCC will build in safeguards to keep interference at bay, players can buy a new wireless system from any of the major manufacturers with confidence. For users of older wireless technologies, most companies are now offering a rebate program towards the purchase of a new system with the trade-in of your old one, making it easier and more affordable to make sure your signal stays intact.
For forward-thinking individuals looking to sidestep the impending white spaces issue altogether, a number of companies are selling or developing technologies that promise to make this entire point moot. X2 Wireless’ offerings all operate outside of the affected UHF bands, and instead work in what are called the ISM bands (Industrial-Scientific-Medical), a series of six bands intended solely for low-powered digital devices. X2’s units operate between 902 and 928 MHz, although another promising band for wireless manufacturers exists at 2.4 GHz, which is where wireless LANs currently exist. Although X2 acknowledges that their product's range is shorter than that of their analog peers (50 feet, compared to the typical 300 feet), the clarity and precision of digital technology make it a promising alternative for many players.
Similarly, Audio-Technica has developed a new high-end digital technology called Ultra Wide Band (UWB)that operates in the 6 GHz range. Although it is currently only available to "install clients" and corporate customers, a number of innovations in UWB devices make this a promising sidestep for large customers trying to tackle the white spaces issue. “Owners of that system don’t have to read any of this,” says AT’s Boss. While the technology remains beyond the financial grasp of the average player, consumers can expect these advances to trickle down fairly quickly.
Of course, as technology continues its relentless march forward, it’s likely that some new device in the future will find a way to interfere with even these advanced wireless systems. But until then, you need not worry—the newest generation of wireless technologies will give you reliable performance for the foreseeable future. And if you’re still feeling a little anxious, maybe it’s time to switch back to cable.