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RF Vendors Rolling Ahead With The Repack

Manufacturers of transmitters, antennas, transmission line, filters and other RF components are already busy with repack orders but say the additional funding included in the government’s recent spending bill should greatly ease the process, particularly for mid-to-small-market stations that have been slow to invest due to fears about compensation. Above, a Dielectric  APT panel antenna. Click here to access TVNewsCheck’s NAB 2018 Resource Guide listing transmitters, antennas and other RF gear  or here to download it as a PDF.

The RF repack, under which 987 full-power TV stations are switching channels by July 2020 to free up broadcast spectrum auctioned by the FCC to wireless operators, got a much-needed boost last Friday (March 16) when President Trump signed Congress’ omnibus spending bill into law.

The legislation adds $1 billion to the $1.75 billion fund created to compensate stations for the equipment and labor required in the  move, with some $600 million coming this fiscal year.

Manufacturers of transmitters, antennas, transmission line, filters and other RF components are already busy with repack orders but say the additional funding should greatly ease the process, particularly for mid-to-small-market stations who have been slow to invest due to fears about compensation.

“How this is all resolved is all relative to how much money is thrown at the problem,” says Alex Perchevitch, president of Jampro Antennas. “Unfortunately, the only way this gets solved quickly is with dollars and cents and people. To that extent, any additional funding is going to be beneficial.”

Concerns over reimbursement are not the only complicating factor, says Perchevitch. Some broadcasters have been going through the FCC maximization process, asking to boost their power or dealing with interference issues.

Another problem is stations are considering their future plans for broadcasting with the new ATSC 3.0 digital TV standard and how that might impact antenna design and their other RF needs. And stations assigned to ch. 14 have to take care not to interfere with adjacent land-mobile frequencies.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The FCC’s maximization application process, which started with a filing window from Oct. 3 to Nov. 2, 2017, has been a “gating event” for some stations ordering repack equipment, says Dennis Wallace, managing partner with RF consulting firm Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace, which handles RF engineering for several large TV groups as well as a number of PBS member stations, state networks and LPTVs/translators.

“The stations who applied for maximization are just getting their CPs [construction permits], and stations can’t order equipment until they get their max CPs in hand,” says Wallace.

Wallace says the FCC has initially focused on maximization applications from stations in the first three of the 10 repack phases, breaking them into two buckets: applications that don’t cause interference issues with any other stations in a market; and then applications that are “mutually exclusive” where two or more stations in a market would have interference problems if both were allowed to raise power. Those stations are given 30 days to come up with an interference agreement or other engineering solutions.

“The concentration of effort has been on the ones that are immediately grantable,” Wallace says.

Vertical Polarization A Popular Option

Most stations that are looking to maximize their power are also interested in using some form of vertical polarization within their signal, which can require anywhere from 25% to 50% more power. That could be to improve indoor reception now or to target mobile devices with ATSC 3.0 in the future, Wallace says. 

“Even if ATSC 3.0 never takes off, which I think it will, you’ll still want to maximize for ATSC 1.0,” he adds. “There’s really no downside.”

The one downside to maximization is that the FCC isn’t going to pay for it, as repack compensation is limited to “like for like” replacement, and stations have to bear the additional cost of improvements like higher power and vertical polarization when buying new transmitters, antennas and associated RF gear, as well as the increased operating expense of a higher electric bill.

RF consultant Merrill Weiss, who is working with about a half-dozen groups on the repack process, says that all of his clients are thinking about investing in vertical polarization but only about half are doing it.

“A lot of it depends on market size, a station’s position in the market, and what they’re able to invest,” he says.

Overall, the repack process is going “reasonably smoothly,” says Weiss, with most clients having finalized their construction plans and submitted forms to the FCC for reimbursement.

“Orders are being placed, and the ones in the earliest of phases are building, in some cases having to add a transmitter building,” he says. “All of that is moving forward.”

One challenge is presented by stations who have received an assignment on ch. 14 in the UHF band, as they have to prove to the FCC that they will not interfere with neighboring land-mobile services on 460-470 megahertz, which can include everything from taxi dispatchers to police, firefighter and ambulance communications.

The testing process could take months and require contacting several thousand land mobile operators within a station’s broadcast footprint and installing special passive intermodulation equipment at the transmitter site to eliminate interference.

“The folks on ch. 14 need to get a real head start,” says Weiss.

Electronics Research Inc. (ERI) got an early jump on preparing for the broadcast repack by striking a deal in April 2016 with wireless carrier T-Mobile, the leading bidder for the 600 MHz spectrum, to help it ramp up its manufacturing and installation capabilities before the FCC’s channel allocations were released and orders started coming in.

The company plays across a broad swath of the transmission business, manufacturing antennas, transmission line and RF components as well as building towers and providing installation services.

While not disclosing financial details, ERI VP of Marketing Bill Harland says that T-Mobile “provided the necessary resources” to construct an additional manufacturing facility, giving it the ability to make 16 broadcast antennas per month, and to add two tower crews to its existing two in order to install those antennas.

Since then, ERI has had substantial order activity. “Business is moving along at a very good clip,” Harland says.

Other RF vendors have also ramped up their manufacturing facilities to meet the demand of what is a very compressed window compared to the analog-to-digital transition.

“The first phase is due in [the fourth quarter], which means a great deal of work in about 10 quarters,” says Jay Martin, VP of sales for antenna, transmission line and RF component vendor Dielectric. “That’s a big difference from the analog to digital conversion, which took 11-and-a-half years.”

Dielectric, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, has expanded its manufacturing capability to meet the demand, opening a new 33,000-square-foot facility dedicated to the repack business last year in Lewiston, Maine.

Based on existing customers affected by the repack, the company has already submitted antenna designs for 917 of the 987 repack stations and is now going after as much business as it can get. It is slated to ship 101 antennas in the second quarter.

“We’ve put the capacity in to meet the need,” says Martin. “I think the bottleneck will be in the field, with structural modifications and installations. But I think everyone will be out by the deadline; I don’t think the commission will be lenient. It may be with an auxiliary antenna, or sharing with another station. But I’m thinking everyone will be off.”

Martin says that Dielectric is working with about 17 of the top 20 station groups and already has orders for all 10 phases from some of them. The company has already delivered antennas to some “Phase Zero” stations that were compensated by T-Mobile to vacate their existing channels early, and they should be on-air this spring. Given the lead time required to build an antenna, Martin encourages customers to order early.

“The lead time is typically 90 to 120 days for aluminum or steel, including design,” he says. “The challenge is antenna design.

Each antenna is custom, and the design process is three to four weeks, including electrical and mechanical engineering and design. The fabrication process is six to seven weeks. But you have got to get in the queue first. We have 70 antennas in the queue today.”

He says that given potential installation delays, customers are wise to have a Plan B, such as an interim solution like sharing with another channel in the market or installing a side-mounted          broadband antenna. Dieletric makes a pre-engineered broadband UHF antenna that sells for $67,000, and Martin says he’s sold more than 70 of them.

Since most stations are spending anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million overall on the repack, buying an interim antenna may “net out” as a smart investment, Martin says. A station can use it on its current channel today, while it changes out its top-mount antenna, and eventually use it as a permanent auxiliary antenna.

“It’s not a big deal [to buy an auxiliary antenna], you’re going to see some stations spending $4 million to $6 million,” says Martin. “This is an inexpensive way to tick the box.”

Radio Frequency Systems (RFS), which makes antennas, RF filters and combiners, and transmission line, has also tweaked production for the repack business.

The global company, which has manufacturing plants around the world including France, Germany and Brazil, currently makes its RFStar UHF broadcast antennas in a 350,000-square-foot facility in Meriden, Conn., while its RF filters are produced in Australia.

 

The company shifted some production capacity of RF cable out of the Connecticut facility to focus on broadcast antennas, which require a lot of space for both manufacturing and testing. RFS also tunes the RF filters that are shipped from Australia in the Connecticut plant. 

“We’ve had to train some extra people, and we’re cranking out product like antennas,” says RFS director of U.S. broadcast sales Eddy Vanderkerken. “We certainly have not reached peak capacity yet, but we’ve filled our order book pretty good.”

A quirk of the repack is the 10 phases in which stations will be deploying new transmission gear and switching channels, notes Vanderkerken, which means a lot of orders are being placed with far-off ship dates. 

“Usually you get an order, start working on it, finish it and ship it out,” he says. “But now we might get an order with a ship date of June 2019. You’re not going to make product now and store it for a year. So we hold off. It’s an awkward timeline.”

Planning For ATSC 3.0

Vanderkerken says customers are definitely looking ahead to ATSC 3.0 when buying their repack systems. In that vein, RFS makes panel antennas with patented “Variable Polarization Technology,” which allows broadcasters to change the degree of polarization for every channel separately at any time, without having to perform any antenna or tower work.

“Tomorrow you could move to 20%, 25% elliptical and v-pol, and it’s just a change in the station,” says Vanderkerken. “Nobody has to climb up the tower.”

For flexibility, RFS has also developed a smaller broadband UHF antenna that works across UHF chs. 14-36. The slotted line SBB-EP antenna, which ranges in price from $50,000 to $200,000 depending on the number of slots, uses elliptical polarization with the vertical polarization fixed at 30% and could be used as either a main or auxiliary antenna.

“We made it so you can use it for whatever purpose,” says Vanderkerken. “We don’t want people to throw away their antenna after the repack is done.”

One of RFS’ high-end installations is at the multi-station transmission facility atop the One World Trade Center skyscraper in New York, where the company supplied the main panel antenna and the bulk of the RF components.

The other major vendor in the 1WTC facility is transmitter manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz, which provided six THU9evo solid-state transmitter transmitters to the site as well as a special liquid cooling system it developed. All of the transmitters at 1WTC are frequency-agile and can move to a new channel without additional hardware.

“We are very busy,” says Graziano Casale, national account manager for Rohde & Schwarz. “Broadcasters are definitely putting in a lot of work. The majority of broadcasters been spot on in their planning and finance requirements. They got the requirements for Phase Zero, we got orders, and now we’re in the installation phase.”

He notes that WWOR and WNJU already went on air on their current channel at 1WTC. Overall, Rohde & Schwarz is installing six to eight transmitters per month during Phase Zero. To provide a “turnkey solution” from site survey through commissioning, the company has hired additional installation and field engineers and also order management personnel to meet repack demand. So far, things are going smoothly.

“I actually expected a few hiccups, but none so far,” says Casale. “We were expecting orders a little earlier, in August and September. But a lot came after the maximization [window] in November and December.”

Casale says that Rohde & Schwarz didn’t expect the repack process to be challenging from a manufacturing point of view, as it has a “pretty massive factory” in Teisnach, Germany, with 90% vertical integration where a “piece of aluminum becomes a transmitter,” and it relies on few outside vendors. The company didn’t expand physical capacity, but did add one shift of workers to meet increased demand.

“We’re really at full capacity right now,” says Casale.

R&S’s general lead time is 16 weeks from when the company receives a purchase order to when it delivers a finished product. Casale notes that transmission is a “project business” and that the manufacturing of individual devices is directed by a program management team.

Buyers Are Powering Up

Repack customers are generally buying transmitters with more power than they need for current operations to give them the headroom to launch ATSC 3.0 services in the future. A lot of stations are exploring vertical polarization, says Casale, as 30% to 50% of customers have asked for a larger transmitter than a like-for-like replacement.

“If you ask for a larger transmitter than you need — if you need 20 kW, but ask for 30 kW — you’re likely going vertical.”

Like Rohde & Schwarz, GatesAir already has orders for all 10 repack phases from some of its largest station group customers and is busy churning out transmitters.

“People are taking this pretty darn seriously,” says Rich Redmond, chief product officer at Gates Air. “Stations have been proactively doing site surveys for the past year and a half, figuring out if they need tower work and how much space they’ll need on the facility. Once they got the allocations, it was off to the races. We have hundreds of guys who have placed orders, and we’re shipping transmitters each week and doing installs.”

Some transmitters have been delivered and passed testing but are still awaiting spring weather for new antennas and RF components to be installed, such as a couple stations in Salt Lake City. Other stations are still working through the maximization process with FCC.

“I think we’ll know a lot more as we get closer to the turn-on, just how prepared everyone is,” says Redmond. “The rubber is going to hit the road coming up late in August.”

For its part, GatesAir has been preparing for the repack rush for the past couple of years, introducing new UHF and VHF models in its Maxiva transmitter line and expanding its manufacturing and service capabilities.

“There is way more being installed in the next three years than the prior six years,” says Redmond. “So, we’ve bolstered our service teams, added people in the factory, and are working with our supply chain to make sure people meet their deadlines. From RF devices and power supplies, to raw sheet metal, we’ve been working with those guys for the last 24 months. I don’t foresee an issue in hitting deliverables.”

The lead time is four to six months, but some stations are placing orders up to 24 months before they need them. While GatesAir does have its customers arranged in a slot schedule, like other vendors it is keeping some capacity open for stations who are late to place their orders. 

“We might be working on a Phase 4 order, but we’re keeping some capacity open, so people in Phase 1 who have not yet placed an order still have capacity,” says Redmond.

GatesAir’s Maxiva transmitters are somewhat futureproof for ATSC 3.0 operation, as they were designed to require the same power levels for both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 operation. That said, many customers are looking to spend more on a higher-powered transmitter and vertical polarization. He estimates that 40% of GatesAir’s repack customers are going up in power.

“The more proactive ones are increasing their power capability as they replace their transmitter, even if they don’t have any plans to go 3.0 in the next several years,” says Redmond.

To ramp up for the repack, Hitachi Kokusai Electric Comark added personnel, discontinued specific product lines and revamped its manufacturing floor to focus on its Parallax transmitters. Hitachi-Comark now has the ability to push a 27.5 kilowatt cabinet off its production line every day, and the company’s lead time is roughly 120 days from the day of order.

“I don’t see anybody needing a transmitter earlier than that, unless they absolutely procrastinated,” says Hitachi-Comark President-CEO Dick Fiore. “And there’s no reason to do that.”

All of Hitachi-Comarks’ customers in Phase 1 and Phase 2 have placed orders, as those transmitters have to be on air for testing in September and December, respectively.

“Everybody else has gotten pretty much into line,” says Fiore. “It’s not like we have to guess where the needs will be. It eases our manufacturing capacity, so we understand exactly where it is.”

Part of understanding is “leaving a little wiggle room for stragglers,” notes Fiore, as a few stations have been slow to place orders. Compensation has certainly been a concern for some, but a bigger worry is the pace of technological change.

“I think the biggest fear that resides in broadcasters is that there may be some kind of technical shift in 12 months,” Fiore says. “That’s why we make our transmitters with the same power ratings for ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0, it protects our customers.”

While Fiore isn’t worried about meeting product demand, he is worried about the tight timeline for the overall repack process particularly given a pattern of extreme weather in recent years. He cited three major “nor’easter” storms that hit New England in a recent 10-day period.

“From a transmitter manufacturer point of view, I don’t see many issues, the same for transmission line and antennas,” says Fiore. “Tower strengthening and installation of equipment onto the tower, that’s more of the issue. Based upon my experience, I think that it will be extremely difficult to meet those requirements in the timeframe that’s been laid out.”

RF consultant Wallace doesn’t disagree, citing the scarcity of tower crews qualified to work on tall broadcast towers. Wallace estimates there are probably only 15 to 20 crews that have both the necessary technical expertise and carry the requisite insurance to work on 1,000-to-2,000 foot towers.

“It’s definitely going to be a problem,” he says.

Wallace pointed to the first fatal accident with the RF repack that occurred in Miami last September, when three Tower King II employees died after falling from a 950-foot tower co-owned by WSVN and WPLG.

“That was probably one of the best crews in the country, but even the best crews can have a bad day,” says Wallace.

An ongoing Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation effectively shuts down a crew from working, says Wallace, and even if they aren’t found at fault they may still have trouble getting insurance. (After an investigation, OSHA said last week that it found Tower King II at fault, a decision the company is contesting.)

But it doesn’t take a dramatic accident to delay tower work. Wallace says a crew in Tennessee recently had to halt work because their winch got flooded in a big storm.

“There are all kinds of unforeseen things that can cause delay,” says Wallace. “I never had a tower project when it was done on time. In my opinion, there are certainly going to be problems. Maybe not in Phase 1, but it will be evident when we get to Phase 2 or 3.”

He expects that the FCC will try to work with stations who experience extenuating circumstances, perhaps allowing adjustments to the schedule or letting a station temporarily channel-share or operate at low-power.

“There are a handful of tools in our toolkit, and I think the commission understands that,” he says.

Read all of TVNewsCheck‘s NAB 2018 news here.


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