Broadcasters are concerned that the logistics and costs of moving about a thousand stations will not be adequate to meet time deadlines and the reimbursement money alloted. “It still feels like the FCC should have, and could have, done a better job at optimizing the repack and causing less disruption and have had a lower cost to reimburse for the repack,” says Nexstar's Brett Jenkins.
Repack Notice Triggers Time, Money Fears
Initial reaction from the broadcast technical ranks to yesterday’s FCC public notice closing the incentive auction and reassigning stations to new channels is deep concern that broadcasters will not be able to meet the 39-month deadline the government has imposed and do the job for less than the $1.75 billion it has to reimburse broadcasters.
“I’m not sure people understand what it takes to hang 20,000 pounds of steel 2,000 feet in the air,” says Pete Sockett, director of engineering and operations at Capitol Broadcasting’s WRAL in Raleigh, N.C.
“The horsepower is not there to pull this off,” he says. “There are a lot of great companies out there, but this is sheer quantity.”
According to the notice, 987 stations, including 30 auction winners that are moving from UHF to VHF channels, will have to move in the so-called repack of the TV band.
And that number may be low, says one RF expert. When the stations currently using distributed transmission systems and Canadian stations that also must move are factored in, the total number of transmitter sites impacted climbs to 1,068.
“It still feels like the FCC should have, and could have, done a better job at optimizing the repack and causing less disruption and have had a lower cost to reimburse for the repack,” says Brett Jenkins, SVP and CTO of Nexstar Media Group.
Dennis Wallace, managing partner at RF consultancy Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace LLC, notes that the allowable interference threshold may be responsible.
“It seems like we are moving two or three stations to make room for one station,” he says. “It seems like you could cut out the middle man and move one guy. But I think that has to do with the very hardline 1% interference thresholds.”
Even allowing stations to choose to accept a half percent more interference would likely have resulted in far fewer stations having to move, he adds.
Another concern is the FCC’s plan to conduct the repack in 10 distinct phases over the given 39 months.
One potential problem is that a few markets are to be transitioned in two separate phases instead of in the same phase, a source familiar with the repack says. “You could very easily have stations in two different phases on the same tower, which would create conflicting work,” says the source.
Even more concerning is the length of the string of dependencies in phases four and five, says the source. “We are talking about many, many stations that all have to jump at the same time because it is a long chain on the same channel. If they all don’t relocate at the same time it is an issue.”
The issue is difficult because the weakest link in the chain of dependent stations will govern the ability of all the stations to move.
For example, Wallace has a state network of noncommercial stations as a client that is assigned to phase four. “All six of their stations are being repacked,” he says. “They only have two or three transmitter engineers. They are not going to be able to manage six projects in parallel because they don’t have that kind of resource.”
Making a tough situation worse is the state network shares the same phase as stations along the eastern seaboard in markets like Washington and Baltimore, he says. “They are going to be competing with stations in those markets for tower crews,” he says.
If one of the resource-poor stations is part of a long string of dependencies in phase four, others could be delayed.
The situation underscores how important cooperation among broadcasters will be to the success of the repack.
Many broadcasters like Sockett at WRAL have already been in touch with fellow stations to discuss the best way to make the repack happen.
“We have had some conversations with our co-tower brethren,” says Sockett. “And we are talking about putting up an aux antenna that will serve all of us.”
No one Sockett has spoken to in the industry is talking about trying to get out of the repack, he says. “We are all going to be the best broadcasters we can and do the best job we can to get this done,” he says. “We’d all just rather get it done and get it over with.”
Still it is going to be “iffy” at best when it comes to meeting the 39-month deadline, says the source familiar with the project. “The first couple of phases will probably get done. The question is will they get done in the allocated time. Things ripple out.”
The other big question is whether the $1.75 billion set aside by Congress to reimburse broadcasters for the expense of the repack will be sufficient.
“I’d say it is probably $2.2 billion for U.S. broadcasters alone, but then you have to factor in the multichannel video providers, and that is anybody’s guess,” the source says. And with the expense of cable and satellite operators thrown in, the total could be closer to $2.4 billion, he says.
The concerns of the broadcast techs is already reflected in the efforts of the NAB to convince the FCC and Congress to provide more time and money for the repack.
“The broadcast industry faces the unprecedented task of moving almost a thousand TV stations — far more than originally anticipated — to new channels in very tight time frames,” said NAB President Gordon Smith in a statement.
“NAB also remains concerned about the impact of the auction on hundreds of radio stations co-located on television towers. We look forward to working with the FCC and Congress to develop a balanced approach to repacking that is fair to all stakeholders, most importantly our tens of millions of TV viewers and radio listeners.”
For more details on the FCC’s various repack deadlines, click here.