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PMSE clarity grows but spectrum war continues

After several challenging years, wireless system sales are expected to grow this year as the outlook for PMSE users assumes greater clarity. But, as David Davies reports, there are still many battles to be fought in the RF spectrum war.

After several challenging years, wireless system sales are expected to grow this year as the outlook for PMSE users assumes greater clarity. But, as David Davies reports, there are still many battles to be fought in the RF spectrum war

Economic and market trends come and go, and are an accepted part of business life, but what can really start to grate on the nerves after a while is plain uncertainty. It’s a feeling with which wireless system providers have become all too familiar over the last five years as the long-term outlook for the European PMSE (Programme Making and Special Events) sector’s use of RF spectrum has continued to evolve.

To this point, seven European countries – UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway – have finalised their plans for the digital dividend that will presage the creation of a new international band for next generation mobile phone and broadband services. Spain has also taken the decision, but is not likely to execute its plans until 2015 – several years after the other seven nations are due to complete spectrum reallocation. It is expected that other countries within the EU will decide in the near-future and implement through 2013.

For PMSE users, this was never going to be anything other than a headache of monumental, hangover-style proportions. The prospect of renewing extensive inventories of wireless equipment rendered inoperable by the spectrum changes has obliged rental houses and installation customers to review their financial plans and put aside additional capital for new system purchases. It’s not something you would particularly want to do in the best of circumstances – let alone the present economic conditions.

Depending on the licensing arrangements in any given country, there has been scope for PMSE users and their representative bodies to seek some form of compensation. Dré Klaassen – European regulatory specialist for wireless products at Audio-Technica and a prime mover behind the PMSE spectrum pressure group APWPT (Association of Professional Wireless Production Technology) – tells PSNE that discussions about possible funding schemes have been taking place in Germany and the Netherlands, but that “no decisions have been made as yet. And remember that in this climate, governments will want to sit on the money as much as they can.”

In this context, then, the UK has been something of a trailblazer in that it is the only European country to have both finalised its plans for PMSE and launched a related funding scheme. Having received its marching orders from the 800MHz band, UK PMSE is being rehoused in Channel 38 from 2012 (indeed, there is already some access to the channel on a shared basis) and will also be able to use interleaved spectrum currently occupied by analogue terrestrial TV.

As numerous interviewees are at pains to stress, this resolution was only arrived at after rigorous campaigning by the BEIRG Pro User Group, PLASA, the Production Services Association and several other parties. Meanwhile, Save Our Sound UK was the primary conduit for securing a funding package; launched by Ofcom and administered by Equiniti, the scheme covers licensed Channel 69 equipment only and will see eligible users receive “roughly 55%” of the cost of replacement systems.

But it is vital to stress that, at time of writing, the package was yet to receive the final rubber-stamp from the UK Treasury. Alan March – Sennheiser UK’s business development specialist and a key member of the BEIRG PMSE Pro User Group – admits that there would be “an almighty kerfuffle if the money was to be refused. But anything can happen – especially in this climate.”

Assuming that approval is received and payments do commence in March as expected, the scheme – however imperfect – will provide some valuable assistance to companies up and down the land. As Shure UK applications & product planning manager Tuomo Tolonen observes: “Had the funding scheme not been put into place, the results could have been disastrous for businesses who could not have afforded to replace their entire stock of wireless equipment. The funding scheme should minimise any disruption to the industry as affected users will be able to invest in new equipment with less hassle.”

Somewhat disappointingly given the efforts made by PMSE campaigners to reach this point, only 65% of eligible applicants registered for the scheme before the deadline of 31 December, 2010. “During the run-up to the registration deadline, we attempted to both call and write to all eligible users to encourage as many people to register as possible. During the same period we were also busy helping people to make their claims,” says Ofcom PMSE spectrum policy advisor Stéphanie de la Sayette.

Manufacturers were expecting to be furnished with final projections of the number of channels to be surrendered to Equiniti on a monthly basis shortly after this issue of PSNE went to press. But on the basis of the preliminary figures alone, Trantec’s head of sales and marketing, Mark Parkhouse, is feeling distinctly upbeat: “If the number of channels coming back converts into sales, it will enhance Trantec’s market position.”

Parkhouse – who says that Trantec was the first company to offer a comprehensive Channel 38-compliant range – expects the bulk of new sales to be derived from the S5 wireless microphone series. “They are versatile, future-proofed products with lots of great features,” he says, adding that Trantec is retaining its current price levels for the whole of 2011 as “a statement of continued support” to its dealers.

Indeed, no matter what their favoured brand might be, UK PMSE users will have no shortage of choice when it comes to selecting systems that operate in Channel 38. Audio-Technica’s 3000b wireless systems are due to be compatible by this month, with senior UK marketing manager Harvey Roberts adding that the “2000a and 700 Series will be made Channel 38 ready by late spring 2011”. Shure UK’s Tuomo Tolonen, meanwhile, reports that “the entire Shure product portfolio is fully compliant with all new UK spectrum regulations. Every product has been specifically designed to operate on Channel 38 and the interleaved spectrum above it.”

The list of Shure systems proffered to PSNE includes the new Axient system launched at NAMM, the PG, PGX, SLX, ULX and UHF-R wireless systems, and the PSM200 and PSM900 in-ear monitoring systems.

Elsewhere, Sennheiser’s G3 GB range systems cover all of Channel 38 and as many future-proofed interleaved frequencies above that as its 42 MHz (from 606-648 MHz) tuning range will allow, while Alan March says that Sennheiser aims to introduce 38-and-up versions of the 2000 and 3000/5000 Series this year. Jon Dew-Stanley from distributor POLARaudio confirms the availability of beyerdynamic Opus Series 600 radio mics for Channel 38 and the forthcoming launch of a compatible version of the Opus 910, while AKG’s DMS 700 digital system is “already available on Channel 38 and has been for a while now. The existing WMS 450 and the new Perception Wireless (new entry level multi-channel systems) are also Channel-38 compatible and will be shipping in March,” confirms Nick Boggon, marketing manager of UK AKG distributor Sound Technology.

The move to Channel 38 is by no means a default choice in all cases, and Harvey Roberts says that Audio-Technica is “keen to make users aware that Channel 38 may not be the best option for everyone and that alternative options exist.” For example, he says, smaller projects entailing the use of up to four wireless systems could be accommodated by F-Band wireless systems operating in the deregulated space of Channel 70, while larger fixed installations might be catered to with D-Band, G-Band and I-Band systems that “operate in the co-ordinated area of the frequency spectrum which is future-proof[ed] beyond 2012”. To explain the possibilities, Audio-Technica has produced the ‘Future-proof Your Wireless’ PDF, available for free download from its website.

Chris Headlam from audio and theatre equipment and sales company Orbital Sound also urges careful consideration of the available options.”In general, people are having a rethink about their use of wireless systems,” he says. “They do not want to spend considerable amounts on upgrading traditional technology only to find that, three years on, it’s not working properly.” Opting for a digital carrier can bring “considerable added protection”, and as a result Orbital expects to register strong interest in digital products such as Zaxcom’s new TRX900LT.

But to focus too much on the purchase of new systems might be to get ahead of ourselves; after all, what’s going to happen to the surrendered ones? Several interviewees expressed their fears of a possible nightmare scenario that could see old systems finding their way into other markets, threatening export sales and the interests of local distributors.

Total scrappage is most observers’ preferred option, but Equiniti’s director of business development, Colin Finnegan, confirms that “no decisions have been made at this time in regard to Equiniti’s arrangements for surrendered equipment”. Additional notes supplied to PSNE by Equiniti confirmed Ofcom and Equiniti’s commitment to ensuring that, ‘as far as is possible’, wireless mics are not used in Channel 69 in the UK/Europe after 2012, and that any possible scrappage scheme would have to comply with the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

As 2011 progresses, it is likely that manufacturers’ attention will begin to shift towards the wider European outlook for PMSE and, beyond that, the troubling prospect of cognitive geolocation devices. But right now, the UK situation is more than enough to be going on with, and Alan March – for one – isn’t taking anything for granted: “As regards the funding scheme, only when that rubber stamp has hit the paper will we able to take the lavalier off the fat lady singer!”