American churches have less than two weeks to change their wireless microphone equipment or face more than $100,000 in fines.
In January, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that anyone using wireless microphones on the 700 MHz band must stop by June 12 in order to make room for use by police, fire and emergency services.
An unlicensed person or business—which includes churches—using microphones on frequencies between 698 and 806 MHz must stop or face action by the FCC. Violators could face up to $112,500 in fines or imprisonment for continued violation, according to the FCC. Violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Since December 2008, Shure Inc., a Niles, Ill.-based audio-visual company, has worked with churches to replace their audio equipment.
"It's like being told that you got to replace your dishwasher even though it's working just fine," said Chris Lyons, manager of educational and technical communication at Shure.
"It affects any church that has any number of microphones that work in the 700 MHz band. For the last several years, that has been one of the very popular parts of the band. So there is a big installed base of wireless life there."
The Village Church of Gurnee in Gurnee, Ill. uses its 24 wireless devices for drama productions, music, preaching and children's ministry. Because of the cost, the church only replaced half of its devices.
"If we were to replace every single channel and piece of equipment we have … it's gonna cost us about $50,000 total," said Jason Carter, the Village Church's pastor of worship ministries. "We're really having to rethink how we're going to do some of those events … It really is changing the dynamic of how we do ministry here on Sunday mornings."
At Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the country's largest church, technical director Reid Hall spent $26,000 to replace 35 of its wireless systems.
"It was a long, strategic plan" Hall said. "There are many churches in similar situations that just can't run out and plop down three or four thousand for new wireless systems. … For them it's a huge burden."
The burden has been felt at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hill, Minn., where chief audio engineer Keith Bufis has replaced 30 wireless microphone systems at a cost of about $25,000.
"We've had to tighten our belts," Bufis said. "We really did not have a budget to cover it all."
Lakewood Church, Village Church, North Heights and 76 other houses of worship have petitioned Congress to pass the Wireless Microphone Users Interference Protection Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., would allow places like churches, educational facilities, recording studios and museums to register their spots on the television airwaves, or "white spaces," that their wireless microphones operate on.
"The white space is sort of this open area right now," Carter said. "It's kind of like, you go to the beach … you just find an empty spot and sit down. But, if you get up and go to the concession stand … and come back, somebody else is in your spot. There is no legal recourse for you to get your piece of sand back."
In his letter to Congress, Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen said churches "must have the right `tools' and the tools must operate properly and without interference."
Mark Brunner, senior director of global brand management at Shure, said the problem was, in many ways, unanticipated in a rapidly changing technological landscape.
"Licenses were not on the radar of the FCC until they recognized, that in order to share this spectrum with new broadband devices, we're going to need to know where these mic's are," Brunner said. "And if they don't know where they are, they can't run air traffic control."
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Previous articles related to the microphone restrictions in Christianity Today's sister publications include:
Racing the FCC Mic Deadline | What churches must do by June 12—and why. (Your Church, February 8, 2010)
Understanding New Wireless Microphone Restrictions Regardless of how well your wireless devices work now, if they operate in the 700 MHz band (as many do), it's time to replace them. (Your Church, May 18, 2009)