TVN Tech | RF Repack Marching Toward Completion
With a little over four months left in the 39-month RF repack process, RF vendors are finally breathing a sigh of relief.
After ramping up their production lines and installation capabilities, manufacturers of transmitters, antennas, transmission lines and other RF components say the repack process has generally gone well and that customers have met the FCC’s deadlines, although some have done it with interim transmission facilities.
Vendors now expect the industry as a whole will make the July 3 end date for vacating UHF channels 38-51 for use by wireless operators like T-Mobile that purchased the 600 MHz spectrum at auction.
The repack was organized into 10 separate phases to spread out the massive undertaking of 987 stations switching frequencies. With the highest-volume phases already completed, the RF industry appears to be over the hump.
Dick Fiore, president and CEO of transmitter vendor Comark, says the “vast majority” of Comark’s customers have met their repack deadlines and that most installations went very smoothly.
“Overall, the tower crew guys, the tower manufacturers and the RF vendors all did what we didn’t think was really possible,” Fiore says. “There were some extra costs associated with that, and the FCC worked to take care of those costs.”
Competitor GatesAir also is pleased with the repack’s progress, says Ray Miklius, VP and GM of the company’s Television Products Group, with 70% of its transmitters shipped to date already on air. GatesAir engineers have had to revisit some customers who made their phase date with interim facilities, such as a side-mounted antenna operating at a lower power, in order to retest the transmitters when stations shifted to their permanent configurations.
Stations have taken their deadlines seriously, and sometimes that has meant going to Plan B.
“We’ve seen people put a transmitter in the back of a freight truck and they’re running it on the side of the building,” Miklius says. “People were fairly creative in how they made it.”
Of course, transmitters were never supposed to be the biggest challenge of the repack. Instead, the biggest hurdle in the process was the tower work required to install new antennas and, in many cases, strengthen the tower to handle increased loads. Going down in frequency means the wavelength of the signal gets longer, requiring many stations moving to lower channels to install bigger antennas and transmission line than they previously used.
For permanent antennas, most stations are using slot antennas built to a specific frequency instead of panel antennas, which are broadband. Fiore says a ch. 51 antenna with 24 slots might be 40 feet, while a ch. 14 antenna with 24 slots might be 60 feet.
“So you’re adding weight, moment and stress on the tower,” Fiore says.
To replace a top-mounted permanent antenna and stay on air during the repack work also requires stations to install a side-mounted antenna to use as an interim solution, unless they already had a licensed auxiliary antenna in place. That’s a lot of work for the roughly 20 crews certified to work on tall towers.
This time last year, many RF insiders were predicting big delays in the repack last summer and fall with tower work backing up due to severe weather, local zoning snafus and the like.
For the most part, that doesn’t appear to have happened, though a fair number of stations made their phase deadlines by securing STAs (Special Temporary Authority) from the FCC to operate on interim facilities.
“There have been challenges, and I won’t say we batted a thousand,” says Bill Harland, VP of marketing for ERI, which provides tower construction services in addition to making antennas and transmission line. “But the FCC is being flexible where it can be. Maybe everybody didn’t make the first deadline. But we have had everybody we’ve done transferred to new channels and operating at full facilities.”
FCC’s Flexible STAs
According to Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, as the RF repack hits the middle of Phase 8 “the transition is proceeding exactly how we envisioned it would go, and on time.” Kiddoo says that every station that was required to move by the end of Phase 7 on Jan. 17 had, in fact, moved off their old channel, representing 774, or 78%, of the 987 total repack stations.
Out of those 774 stations, 83%, or 642, are operating with permanent facilities. Only 17%, or 132, have STAs to broadcast from interim facilities.
“A lot of the stations that ran into real issues wound up getting STAs and moving to their new channel but operating at less than their full facility,” notes Dennis Wallace, managing partner with RF consulting firm Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace. “They made their deadline, but the tradeoff is to go on some temporary or interim facility with the idea being to go back and finish the main facility later.”
Wallace says there are several East Coast stations in Phase 4, which was supposed to be completed Aug. 2, 2019, that are still struggling to complete their full facilities. He also cites a top 10 market where all of the repacked stations are operating interim facilities on STAs that expire in April. He is pursuing second STAs for those clients and is unsure what the FCC will do.
“The commission has been pretty flexible so far as long as stations are making progress in moving to their new channel, and the commission has granted more time,” Wallace says. “That might change in the next six months.”
For her part, Kiddoo says the FCC has already granted some STAs that extend beyond this July 3 to allow stations to complete permanent facilities.
Most stations that do receive STAs are quick to finish their permanent facilities, Kiddoo adds. She says the overall percentage of stations operating under STAs has hovered around 20% throughout the repack.
“What that tells you is that people are coming off their interims pretty quickly, most in a matter of weeks,” Kiddoo says. “That’s what we’ve been seeing.”
As of mid-February, a number of Phase 8 stations had already moved off their pre-auction channel and a number of earlier-phase stations had switched to their permanent facilities since Phase 7 ended, Kiddoo says.
Many repack stations didn’t have existing auxiliary antennas, says Dielectric Sales Manager Cory Edwards, and so Dielectric provided them with broadband panel and slot antennas that could be side mounted and used on either the old or new frequency.
That allowed a station to decommission their old top-mounted antenna and replace it with a new one built for their new channel, while maintaining service during construction with the side-mounted antenna. Or they could simply launch service on their new channel with the side-mounted antenna in order to make their phase deadline, and finish up work on their permanent top-mounted antenna later.
“What a lot of them wound up doing was staying on their old antenna and changing to their new channel on the aux,” says Edwards, who adds that Dielectric still has several main antennas in storage at an off-site facility in Maine.
RFS also had several stations that made their phase deadline with side-mounted antennas and are still waiting to get their mains installed, either due to lack of crew availability or winter weather.
“We’re still having problems getting mains on,” says RFS Product Manager Bill Brooks. “We have a number of antennas sitting in the yard because we can’t get a crew onsite at this time of year.”
ERI had the same experience with several customers.
“We’ve had a few people who for various reasons purposefully set things up so they made the transition to an interim side mount,” Harland says. “Either they decided to put up final facilities after the phase ended, or they had tower reinforcement that needed guy wire, and that wasn’t going to be available.”
Looking To Repack’s End
Harland and other vendors say most customers will try to get their permanent facilities installed as quickly as possible. But they say with the amount of work that is left, the repack may not be fully over until a whole year past July 2020.
“The best-case scenario is it’s all done by the Christmas holidays of 2020,” says Graziano Casale, account manager for transmitter vendor Rohde & Schwarz. “The worst case is it goes to mid-2021. I would be surprised if it all got done before the holidays.”
GatesAir’s Miklius agrees. “I would think it would go on for another year after the final phase is done,” he says. “About a year after that and maybe longer. There’s going to be a lot of cleanup work.”
Many stations buying gear as part of the repack are looking ahead to future NextGen TV operations. As such, they spent above their reimbursement amounts to invest in key technologies like vertical polarization to better support mobile reception, which not only means a more expensive antenna but also a more powerful transmitter.
Edwards says that probably 90% of Dielectric’s repack customers included vertical polarization in their antennas. Stations that passed on investing in “v-pol” did it for strategic reasons based on the projected potential for NextGen TV in their market. One large station group, for example, invested in vertical polarization for all but a few small-market stations, he says.
Miklius estimates that 15% of GatesAir’s repack customers implemented vertical polarization by getting a more powerful transmitter.
“That money came out of their pocket, and for some of them that was significant in terms of the power increase they were getting,” he says. “But for mobile reception, they believe v-pol will be important.”
New Revenue Opportunities For RF Vendors
Beyond the extra spending made by repack stations, vendors say there isn’t a lot of active investment in NextGen TV right now. And as the repack business slows down, they are looking at other opportunities to generate revenue.
Low-power TV is one of those prospects, as there are more than 2,000 LPTVs and translators that lost their channels as part of the repack process. While some of those stations have simply gone dark, most filed displacement applications with the FCC back in 2017 for proposed new channels.
More than 1,500 eligible LPTVs subsequently applied for reimbursement for relocation costs by filing “Form 399s” last November, and the FCC is currently in the process of determining allocations.
A bigger revenue opportunity for the RF industry is the roughly 1,500 full-power stations that weren’t involved in the repack, many of which are operating with their original DTV facilities. Some are operating with suboptimal, side-mounted antennas that they haven’t been able to change since the FCC put a freeze on new DTV construction back in April 2012, in order to prepare the industry for the repack.
“For antennas and filters, there are a lot of TV stations that were not in the repack, and all of those guys haven’t been spending money since the transition from analog,” Harland says. “So there’s got to be a lot of pent up demand.”
Other stations have aging IOT (inductive output tube) transmitters from defunct vendors like Axcera and Larcan, some that have been operating for 20 years. Those transmitters are ripe for replacement, particularly when considering the electricity savings that come with today’s more efficient solid-state models. Once the repack is complete, many of those stations will be looking to upgrade.
“There are some really old plants out there,” Miklius says. “Our market study showed that there are 400-plus high-powered tube rigs out there, or first-generation solid state, where customers could benefit from new stuff that is so much higher efficiency. So it’s a green/economic play they’re going to have to consider.”
Miklius says that with today’s high-efficiency transmitters, a station can pay off the acquisition in a couple of years between the reduced maintenance and lower electricity costs.
Rohde & Schwarz is already seeing several stations replace aging IOT transmitters.
“The majority of upgrades we’re seeing are IOT first generation,” says Casale. “The tubes are scarce, and the people available to work on the tubes are even more scarce.”
Casale says that last month Rohde & Schwarz upgraded a station that had a 40-kilowatt two-tube IOT transmitter that was operating at 18% efficiency. They switched to a four-cabinet, 73-kilowatt solid-state transmitter running at 65 kW, at 42% efficiency, and even operating at higher power their electrical bill still dropped some $8,000 to $10,000 per month.
“That’s $100,000 a year,” he notes.
Wallace also sees a lot of stations replacing transmitters in the near future.
“Those old DTV transmitters that are now 15 and 20 years old, they’re not supported and they’re not as energy efficient,” he says. “In a lot of cases, you can get a good 10% to 15% return on invested capital just in terms of the energy savings. No doubt, the next wave for vendors will be replacing old DTV transmitters for stations that were not repacked.”