Groups' pricey wireless mics now useless

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Thursday, July 8, 2010 02:55 AM
By Elizabeth Gibson 
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Liz Wheeler, left, and Vicky Welsh-Bragg rehearse for the Actors' Theatre production of Dark of the Moon at Schiller Park. They'll have to use different wireless microphones.

When the stars of the Columbus Children's Theatre start to sing, a wireless microphone carries their lyrics over the chords of musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Wizard of Oz.

So when the Federal Communications Commission banned a common variety of wireless microphone, it was a problem.

"Now we have very expensive equipment that's worthless," said William Goldsmith, the theater's artistic director. "There are thousands of these microphones around the country that are now worthless."

Goldsmith said the four microphones that the theater had used cost about $1,000 to $2,000 each.

Whether for a sermon, a corporate board meeting, a school assembly or even a children's karaoke machine, wireless microphones that operate on a 700-MHz frequency are out.

"If you're not off it, you need to get off it. This is a matter of public safety," said Matt Nodine, chief of staff of the FCC's wireless telecommunications bureau.

The vast majority of wireless microphones are fine, especially newer equipment. But the FCC identified 3,000 different types of organizations with the problematic microphones. The FCC has more information at www.fcc.gov/cgb/wirelessmicrophones.

These microphones use frequencies that existed in the space between the signals from television stations. When TV went digital a year ago, it freed up most of the 700-MHz frequencies.

But once the TV stations were out of the way, companies spent about $19 billion buying up the frequencies in an FCC auction. Large blocks of available frequencies don't pop up often, and they were in demand for new Internet-friendly cellular-phone systems.

The microphones could cause interference when a phone company or a police department tries to use its newly acquired frequency.

"You might be sitting in church listening to the preacher's sermon and a trooper drives by the church, and suddenly you're hearing the trooper's radio traffic instead," said Darryl Anderson, director of the MARCS radio service used by police and safety agencies across the state.

The worst-case scenario is that the police dispatcher would hear the preacher instead of an officer calling for help, although Anderson said that was less likely.

The state's radio system is expanding to the 700-MHz bandwidth so it can take advantage of modern technology. The first eight towers that use that frequency will be going up in Cuyahoga County within the next three months.

FCC officials tried to spread the word in advance, but it still cost microphone users money.

Xenos Christian Fellowship on the North Side spent $8,000 to $10,000 on new equipment, and Faith Life Church in Johnstown had to spend a few thousand dollars.

"I guess it's an excuse to get new stuff," said John Ondo, Faith Life Church's media director. "We weren't hit too bad because we just moved and got a new system, but I'm sure other people had it worse."

Actors' Theatre, which depends heavily on wireless technology for its outdoor performances in Schiller Park, relied entirely on 700-MHz microphones, Artistic Director John S. Kuhn said. The group is halfway to raising the $8,000 needed to replace 12 microphones.

"We're sort of all (affected)," Kuhn said. "Nothing is going to change. The deed has been done, and it's going to have a large impact on so many organizations and nonprofits with no recourse."

egibson@dispatch.com