They worry that the timeline proposed for moving stations to new channel assignments following the FCC’s incentive auction is too short. The number of stations that may be required to change channels as part of the repack may exceed the industry’s capaciy to hang antennas, says consultant Jay Adrick. “There are only 14 tower crews in the United States.”
Broadcasters are expressing concern that the timetable proposed by the FCC to repack TV spectrum following the auction to wireless carriers is unworkable and that the consequences for failure to meet the deadlines under consideration are too severe.
The proposals, made during a March 31 meeting at FCC headquarters in Washington, include a 39-month window to complete channel relocation following the completion of the auction. Failure by a broadcaster to finish the channel change in that time will result in that station going dark until the work is completed. (You can read the list of proposals here.)
Another proposal states that if a station is unable to complete the channel change within a year of going dark, it will be required to forfeit its broadcast license.
The meeting, part of an effort by agency Chairman Tom Wheeler to promote transparency regarding the auction and repack, shed light on the thinking behind an order expected out this spring that will put the wheels in motion on the TV spectrum auction and repack.
Attending the meeting were representatives from major broadcast networks, station groups, and industry consultants, as well as members of the FCC Media Bureau and legal staff.
The order, expected to go to the commissioners for approval at their May or June open meeting, will address what the reorganized 600 MHz band will look like, provide details about the auction process, lay out the impact of the auction on broadcasters, including the repack, the reimbursement process and time line, and what happens after the repack, said Jay Adrick, an independent consultant and former vice president of Harris Broadcast (now GatesAir), who attended the meeting.
Adrick, who has provided the FCC with detailed information on the logistics involved in replacing TV antennas, said he thinks the FCC timetable under consideration may be too aggressive.
Of particular concern to Adrick is that the number of stations that may be required to change channels may exceed the industry’s capacity to hang new antennas on towers.
“There are only 14 tower crews in the United States,” he said. “Fourteen tower crews with an average of six weeks on site to complete a job, means there is a maximum of 364 [stations] that could be done in three years.”
Circumstances beyond the control of tower crews and broadcasters, such as weather and acquiring local permits to modify existing towers, may also lengthen the time actually needed, Adrick said.
Sutro Tower in San Francisco offers an example of delays that can be created by local government. “In San Francisco, which basically is under the California Environmental Quality Act, and in other states with rigorous environmental reviews of any permit request, there are many hoops to jump through to modify a structure,” said Eric Dausman, VP-COO of Sutro Tower Inc.
One year ago, Sutro Tower filed the required permits with San Francisco’s local government to add two broadcast stations and other ancillary facilities to the Sutro Tower site. “We expect approval to take another three months, and there is no opposition. It’s just processing,” he said.
Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, said in the time allotted it may also be difficult to scale up tower, antenna and transmitter manufacturing capacity to meet a sudden, large demand created by the repack.
The transition from analog to digital transmission is instructive, he said. “If you look at the ramp up of Comark in the transmitter sector [for which Aitken once worked] … and you look into the ramp up of Dielectric, which supplied 70% of the antennas in the transition, it took seven years for them to ramp up to their peak capacity.”
What is making this transition harder is that the FCC froze construction permit processing one year ago to make it easier to prepare for the auction and spectrum repack. “You have got to deal with the freeze in place that precludes the ability of a broadcaster to do anything with respect to his facilities right now,” said Aitken. “There’s not the ability to start the engine of the vendors upon which this transition depends.”
Helping to guide the commission as it finalizes its order on the auction and repack is a report filed with the agency in December 2013 by Widelity Inc., a communications consultant based in Fairfax, Va.
In its report, Widelity presents four case studies on how the repack will affect different sorts of television stations, including the cost of replacing their RF plants and the time needed to make the changes. (Editor’s note: The FCC Media Bureau is seeking comments on the report. They are due April 21.)
Three of the four case studies describe stations facing relatively simple repack scenarios. The price tags of those projects range from $588,000 to $2,695,000, and the estimated time to completion, not accounting for any glitches, runs from 9.5 to 14 months. However, the scenario for a station facing an extremely complicated repack is far different.
For places like Sutro Tower, the Empire State Building and Four Times Square in New York City and the Willis Center in Chicago, the report said the cost involved will be nearly $12 million and take 41 months to complete — two months longer than the commission envisions giving broadcasters to complete their move to a new channel.
The report does not take into account weather, municipal permitting or the fact that hundreds of repacks could be going on at the same time, all factors that could draw out time to completion, said Adrick.
“If you factor in worst case, not absolute best case, many stations are going to fall out of the 39-month window, and we already have one best-case scenario described in the Widelity report that falls outside that window,” he said.
“So, are we going to force stations off the air if they can’t make it? That is what the current proposal says,” Adrick added.
“Do we really believe it is in the best interest of the public to force stations off the air if for some reason they can’t make the transition in that period of time? Does that serve the public’s interest, convenience and necessity, which is what the Communications Act of 1934 is all about? Seems to me it doesn’t.”