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Consumer groups are accusing Broadway actors, mega-church pastors, karaoke DJs and others who use popular wireless microphones of unwittingly violating Federal Communications Commission rules that require government licenses for such devices. In a complaint filed July 16, the groups accused manufacturers, such as Shure Inc. of Niles, Ill., of deceptive advertising in the way they market and sell high-end, wireless microphones to people who are not legally permitted to use them. The complaint recommends that the government agree to a general amnesty for unauthorized microphone users. The legal filing on such a quirky subject raises serious questions for the U.S. government. It alleges that after the nation’s conversion to digital broadcasting in February, some of the microphones will threaten emergency communications and interfere with commercial wireless carriers, which spent $19 billion to use the same airwaves as the microphones. It’s unclear how many entertainers, pastors, musicians and others use wireless microphones. Analysts say there may be millions, most of whom do not understand that FCC rules require a license and include strict limits on who may qualify for such a license. High-end wireless microphones operate in the same frequency bands as broadcast television stations. The devices are intended for use in the production of television or cable programming or the motion picture industry, according to FCC rules. Those users must obtain a government license. FCC records show 952 people or organizations possess such licenses. The complaint, filed with the FCC by a coalition of consumer groups known as the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, figures heavily in a steadily escalating battle between broadcasters and the technology industry over who should have access to frequencies that exist between television channels, also known as “white spaces.” The FCC rarely enforces the licensing requirements on the microphones because there have been so few complaints. The microphones are programmed to avoid television channels. Broadcasters haven’t complained and the consumer groups accused the FCC of “benign neglect” regarding enforcement. A spokesman for Shure, Mark Brunner, said the FCC understands that “today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme.” FCC spokesman Robert Kenny confirmed that use of the microphones has drawn few complaints, but there may be some going forward “and we recognize that.” The commission is considering rules that will resolve interference problems among legal licensees, but there are concerns the fix won’t address those users who are unlicensed. Channels 52 through 69 in the UHF television band, currently used by broadcasters, will be vacated on Feb. 17 as they convert to digital broadcasting. The government sold that section of airwaves for $19 billion in the FCC’s most successful auction in history. Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. bought $16 billion worth of the licenses. The companies are expected to take years before they begin using them. Other parts of the television spectrum will be used by paramedics, police and firefighters. It’s not known how many wireless microphones operate in that range and will be subject to interference. The FCC also is currently considering whether to allow companies to use the airwaves spaces between television channels, following the digital transition, for transmitting wireless broadband signals. Consumer groups and some of the nation’s largest technology companies — including Google Inc., Microsoft Inc. and Dell Inc. — say these white spaces represent enormous potential to make broadband more accessible. The nation’s broadcasters, however, are unconvinced devices can be designed to avoid interfering with television signals. The lawyer who wrote the complaint, Harold Feld of the public interest law firm Media Access Project, said wireless microphones have been the “elephant in the room” in the debate over white spaces. Shure, Broadway theaters, the Grand Ole Opry and other users of wireless microphones objected to the FCC over future white-space devices because of fears about interference — even though many of them haven’t been granted government licenses for the microphones they’re using. That’s a point not lost on the FCC chairman, who generally supports the initiative on white spaces. “The complaint certainly highlights the fact that there are already other people using the white spaces in an unlicensed capacity and that’s something we will look at going forward,” the FCC’s Kenny said. The consumer groups are recommending that the FCC halt sales of wireless microphones that operate between channels 52 and 69 and create a new “general wireless microphone service” to operate in other parts of the airwaves. They also want the FCC to require microphone manufacturers to replace the older devices. Shure says it stopped selling microphones that use the potentially troublesome frequencies in November of 2007. Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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