The 957 stations moving to new channels in the FCC repack of the TV band might get up and running on those channels in two years as the agency has mandated, but many may have to settle for temporary side-mount antennas and loss of coverage for three to five years because there aren’t enough tower rigging crews to go around. What can be done?
Anybody who has ever seen a spindly tall broadcast tower knows instinctively that it cannot be easy to erect, maintain or modify. That it not only stands, but withstands the worst weather, seem to defy logic.
Such towers, some as tall as 2,000 feet, are commonplace. They provide the height that, when combined with raw transmitter power and the right antenna, give stations their tremendous reach.
Following the FCC’s incentive auction, in which the agency sold 70 MHz of broadcast spectrum to wireless carriers for nearly $20 billion, the agency ordered a repack of the TV band to segregate the new wireless spectrum from the remaining broadcast spectrum.
The repack requires 957 TV stations to move to new channels in 10 staggered phases by July 2020. That’s a huge undertaking, involving the installation of new transmission gear, including, in most cases, new broadcast antennas.
Recognizing that it is a forced migration, Congress set aside $1.75 billion of the auction proceeds to reimburse broadcasters and others for the cost of their moves. Later, it agreed to increase the fund by another $1 billion.
Which brings us back to those towers. Working on them is a complex and dangerous business. We have been reminded of this twice over the past several months.
Last fall, three riggers died when the scaffolding they were using to work on the 1,000-foot broadcast tower of WPLG and WSVN in Miami collapsed.
And just last month, the 2,000-foot tower of noncommercial KOZK Springfield, Mo., toppled over, killing one member of the crew and injuring three others. The crew was trying to reinforce the structure so that it could support a new antenna needed for the station’s repack move to a new channel.
Removing and replacing antennas takes a well-trained crew to do the job safely and there are not many of them — three dozen or so.
And therein lies the problem.
That is not enough to install all the antennas in their optimum and permanent positions and meet the FCC deadlines.
Don Doty, of FDH Infrastructure Services, who has been building, maintaining and rigging towers for 44 years, says that given the limited number of crews, it could take until 2025 to finish all the work.
One year into the repack, only about 40 high-power antennas have been shipped and, of them, only 10 or 15 have been installed. “Now they expect to do the remaining 900 in two years. That’s more than 30 antennas per month. I don’t think that’s feasible. I don’t think it’s possible.”
This is not just Doty’s opinion. At the NAB Show in April, he says, many of the rigging and tower companies met and came to the same conclusion.
Doty believes the FCC and other policymakers bear some blame.
When the FCC started ramping up the incentive auction, it stopped issuing new construction permits. “That essentially put all the tower companies, antenna manufacturers, transmitter manufacturers and consultants out of business. Everyone was surviving on minimal work.”
Then, following the incentive auction, the FCC began spewing out CPs for the repack on tight deadlines. “All of a sudden, now we had to figure out how to go from zero to a hundred miles an hour and it’s just tough to do.”
What can be done is what was done during the transition from analog to digital in the 2000s, says Doty. Broadcasters can meet their deadlines by postponing installation of permanent antennas and instead installing temporary side-mounted antennas, sacrificing some coverage for expediency.
The broadcasters can then go back and install their permanent antenna in an orderly and safe fashion after the deadlines have passed.
According to the NAB, the FCC has said that it will reimburse broadcasters for work done after the deadline if they submit cost estimates before the deadline, and Congress has said the FCC can tap the additional reimbursement funds until 2023.
That’s somewhat reassuring, but not entirely. Broadcasters cannot anticipate with perfect accuracy all the post-deadline costs they may run into. If they underestimate, they could be stuck with some whopping bills. And, if Doty is correct, those funds may be needed past 2023.
The repack deadline is totally within the discretion of the FCC and I doubt that broadcast-friendly Chairman Ajit Pai will throw off the air any station that has made a good faith effort to meet its deadline.
But I don’t think the fate of the broadcasters’ OTA service and repack reimbursements should be left to anybody’s discretion or to promises from the FCC staff.
Broadcasters and the tower companies need firm guarantees and, at some point, the NAB and its allies at the state associations ought to get them.
It’s not too early to make the case for the guarantees.
Doty has written a letter laying out his concerns, and plans to submit them into the relevant, ongoing FCC proceedings (16-306 and 12-268).
Others who share his concerns should follow his lead.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.