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    Posted November 13, 2008

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FCC Approves New Use of Airwaves Despite Opposition from Broadway Community

As the world watched the historic presidential election on November 4th, another vote was quietly held in Washington, DC. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 5 - 0 to approve the new use of white spaces, a slice of radio frequencies on the TV spectrum, for the development by Microsoft and other technology companies of hand held devices that can utilize these frequencies and increase public access to the internet.

For the theatre industry nationwide, this vote is of great concern and could impact how we create stage productions. For more than three decades, theatres across the country have utilized these white spaces for wireless microphones and technical operating systems backstage. The FCC vote will allow a marked increase in the use of white spaces that could potentially interfere with the sensitive, daily calibrations of the wireless systems used by theatres. An errant signal from one of these new devices, or the overcrowding on the spectrum, especially in urban areas, could trigger the movement of a set piece or disrupt or drown out dialogue on stage.

The Broadway League quietly monitored the situation over a two-year span, attempting to put into place assurances that the FCC would continue testing after the initial tests of the new hand held devices failed. During this summer, The Broadway League, joined by Equity and other Broadway unions, stepped up efforts to encourage further testing and to delay a vote until after the presidential election. In August, the FCC conducted tests at THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, at which Equity, the League and other industry and union leaders were present. The test results did not prove conclusively that the devices would not interfere with the wireless systems used on Broadway.

The Broadway community was not the only industry to express its concern. Initial testing by the FCC in conjunction with the National Football League clearly showed the hand-held devices interfered with the referees on the field. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the Professional Golf Association Tour and other sports entities quickly voiced their argument that this new technology was not ready for prime time.

The New York City Council Committee on Technology in Government, chaired by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, and supported by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, drafted a resolution, based on testimony given at a hearing, urging the FCC to delay its vote. Equity Third Vice President Ira Mont testified at the hearing, saying: "The wireless microphone and communications systems [used in theatre] are a highly complex process…Without these systems, theatrical venues - from Broadway to small developing theatres to large arenas - across the country will simply not be able to operate and the results will likely be damaging for both the venues and the communities in which they are located." Local 802 AFM President Mary Landolfi echoed Mr. Mont's testimony: "These internet devices will operate on frequencies close to, or even on top of, those used by wireless microphones. This will create a very high chance of interference, thereby ruining the audience's experience."

Speaking on behalf of The Broadway League, Shubert Corporate Relations Manager Heidi Mathis described the complicated wireless operations on Broadway and the coordinated efforts of Broadway productions made prior to each performance, necessary to eliminate any possibility of interference among the shows. Laurie Baskin, Director of Government and Education Programs for Theatre Communications Goup, spoke on behalf of the more than 4,000 members who are part of the national network of performing arts organizations. She, too, supported the resolution proposed by Councilwoman Brewer and the Committee and said: "The FCC should continue its careful testing and craft policies that…will not interfere with the wireless microphone and audio equipment that is essential to bringing live performances to millions."

As opponents to the FCC's position stepped up their campaign to delay the vote and push for further testing, Google, Microsoft and others mounted a campaign to advance their position that the white spaces should be opened up and the hand-held devices should be given clearance. It was reported in the press that Microsoft founder Bill Gates placed calls to the FCC Commissioners, urging them to hold the vote.

In mid-October a report issued by the FCC's Office of Engineering Technology concluded the hand-held devices were generally able to detect television signals, but the tests for wireless microphone interference produced mixed results. With this qualified nod, the FCC confirmed the vote would be held in November.

The Broadway League sponsored several ads targeting key Washington influencers. The ads showed actors on a stage and the play's dialogue drowned out by conversations aired through the interference of these new devices. The ads listed the names of all Broadway and touring productions as well as every theatrical union working on Broadway and the road. Letters were filed with the FCC by theatre industry leaders urging the FCC to delay the vote, providing further opportunity for testing and for public debate. In Equity's letter to the Chair and Commissioners of the FCC, Executive Director John Connolly wrote, "Wireless communication systems, through white space usage, are indispensable to the integrity and safety of theatre and live entertainment both onstage and backstage…If the FCC implements regulatory changes that allow further crowding of the spectrum with new uses and users to go forward without first demanding evidence that incumbent wireless users, such as theatrical industry professionals nationwide will not be impaired, live theatre can be devastated."

At press time, it was unclear what further actions will be taken, although discussions throughout the Broadway community are being held. According to a report in the November 5, 2008 edition of the New York Times, "devices using the spectrum could be on the market within a year to 18 months."

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