Rich Redmond is the chief product officer at transmission specialist GatesAIr and is a student of the technical and regulatory forces forever reshaping broadcasting. He talks about the challenges and opportunities — for GatesAir and the TV broadcasting — presented by the TV band repack that will follow next year’s spectrum incentive auction and by the coming of the next-generation TV transmission standard ATSC 3.0.
If you work at a full-power TV station in the U.S., chances are two out of three that the transmitter delivering your programming to over-the-air viewers and local cable systems is a product of GatesAir.
Once part of Harris Broadcast, now a division of Imagine Communications, GatesAir is the dominant manufacturer of transmitters for both radio and TV in the U.S. where it has deep roots. It also has a substantial presence in broadcast markets around the world.
Rich Redmond is the chief product officer at GatesAIr. As such, he is a student of the technical and regulatory forces forever reshaping broadcasting.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Redmond talks about the challenges and opportunities — for GatesAir and the TV broadcasting — presented by the TV band repack that will follow next year’s incentive auction and by the coming of next-gen transmission standard ATSC 3.0.
An edited transcript:
Many TV stations are going to be moving the new channels in the repack that follows the incentive auction next year. That sounds like good news for a transmitter manufacturer.
I think there is a significant opportunity in the U.S. market that could take place during repack. The challenge that broadcasters have — and to a certain extent we in supporting them — is figuring out what the final outcome is going to be. There are always a lot of question about what channel you are going to operate on. There are some people who are discussing channel sharing. And then there is this other movement in the industry for ATSC3.0, which many say they would like to have coincide.
Despite the question marks, you have to prepare. How big a deal will this be for GatesAir as the leading transmitter manufacturer?
Projections we have seen range anywhere from several hundred to upwards of 800 or 900 full-power stations having to move channels. So, that’s pretty significant when you consider there are only 1,700 full-power stations in the U.S.
Will those stations need transmitters or will a new exciter do?
By the time the auction happens and people start moving channels, the installed base of transmitters will be at least 10 years old. Some of the earlier ones will be 20-something years old.
The earlier transmitters tended to be very frequency dependent so you generally could only move a channel or two. Moving very far beyond that requires significant reworking of the transmitters, which in some cases requires components that are no longer manufactured. So generally, people could move to new channel with their existing transmitters, but we believe a lot of people will find the need for a new transmitter.
Can you tell me what the new transmitter costs for UHF are?
It kind of really depends on the power level, but it’s not uncommon for new transmitters to be between $500,000 and $1.5 million.
What’s new in transmitter technology that is going to make broadcasters feel better about spending that kind of money on a new transmitter? Electrical efficiency?
Right. I might have had a solid-state transmitter that I put in earlier in DTV, that may have had an AC-to-RF efficiency of 16% to 22%. So, in that case, 80%-plus of the power you consumed went into waste heat. Today’s transmitters that we are delivering can provide 30% or so AC-to-RF efficiency. So, you make a pretty dramatic reduction in the amount of power that’s going to heat. That also means that your building cooling costs also go down because you are dumping less heat into the building.
The other piece of good news is, in some cases, local utilities offer incentives to customers for changing to efficient fluorescent lights or LED lighting or to move to efficient elevator motors. Broadcast transmitters often qualify for those programs, so there is the potential to offset some of that investment with help from the power company.
Working with other vendors, I understand that GatesAir will supply a complete transmission system.
So if you start at the top, if you will, I may need to change my antenna. I can’t really comment on exactly what that costs, but a fairly sizable antenna, 2,000 feet in the air is a significant investment. The transmission line we generally feel can be reused, although in some extreme cases it may have to be replaced. The RF filter system will generally need to change as most of those were built to frequency.
So what’s the worst-case scenario on cost for a station — antenna, filter, transmission line and transmitter?
Well, if you needed to change everything, we have seen estimates ranging from $1 million to $3 million.
I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about broadcasters combining transmission facilities during the repack to save money and to prepare for ATSC 3.0? Are you hearing the same?
Yeah, I think there is significant opportunity for broadcasters in facility sharing. The Americas are somewhat unique in that most broadcasters have their own transmission facility. In many other parts of the world, transmission facility sharing is very common where three or four channels are broadcast on the same common antenna with the same transmission line infrastructure. They may very well have a shared backup transmitter that is frequency agile, and backup generators.
Does GatesAir here have the capacity to meet the surge in demand that will be created by the repack?
What we are going to find is manufacturing transmitters isn’t going to be the gating item. It’s probably going to be more related to manpower related to towers and antennas because that is a little more specialized. The transmitters that were deployed during DTV could cover just two or three channels. When manufacturing them, you needed to know at the beginning what those channels were because the frequency determines that part and so forth.
In today’s design, changing a channel is as easy as punching a different frequency in on the exciter. Our ability to build ahead has been significantly improved. And the fact that we use numerous smaller modules to make up the large transmitter really lends itself to be able to take on these large networks. So I think there is a lot that has evolved since DTV was turned on in the U.S. that really kind of mitigates some of the risk around transmitter manufacturing capacity.
So the 39 months that the FCC has set out for moving to a new channel, that’s not going to be a problem for you?
For manufacturing transmitters, we don’t think so. We have lined up, I would say, flexible options for us. We have got the option of running more shifts. Today in some parts of our facility we are on three shifts; other parts, it’s one or two. So we have got the ability to step up the number of shifts we are running.
We have got a significantly large transmitter facility, some argue the world’s largest, in our Quincy, Ill., location. We believe that we are going to be prepared from a transmitter standpoint. Like I said, I think expertise in mounting antennas on 2,000 foot towers, that’s a little more limited and that may very well be a constraint, but with all these transmitters, we will be able to support the market.
You alluded to ATSC 3.0 before. You have been involved with the testing of the LG Futurecast system in Cleveland. Is the industry and the FCC going to adopt the standard and, if so, how is it going to affect your business?
I have been encouraged to see the type of collaboration that’s happening in the ATSC 3.0 process from a lot of different proponents. We have participated with our partners at LG and Zenith, but at the end of the day, we are generally standards agnostics. We support all the global television standards and 3.0 is one of them.
It’s very clear that ATSC 3.0 brings the type of tools broadcasters want and need to be competitive for the next generation of viewers. Targeting mobile users is critically important, gaining additional payload from having more sophisticated modulation, being able to have two single frequency networks, being able to use the benefits of next generation encoding like HEVC — it’s all tremendous.
But I think it’s also important that these platforms will support an IT-based backbone that really allows broadcasters to have a broader play in delivering content to users. So, look, I can’t predict the politics, but it seems clear that the technology is real and can be deployed. It seems real to me that, more and more broadcasters are relying on needing these types of tools for their business and so I think we are pretty confident it’s going to move forward.
The exact timing and the politics of it is kind of beyond what we do, but I would say it has a high probability. You go back a couple of years ago when people were first talking about it, it was kind of, well, we can go make these improvements, but the business model wasn’t so clear. While the business model may still not be 100%, a lot of customers and smart people are spending a lot of time in that area identifying how this could be a growth opportunity for over-the-air broadcasting.
And so if I am a broadcaster who just bought a new transmitter because of the repack, will I have to turn around and buy a new exciter to implement ATSC 3.0?
Our exciter platform is software defined. So, if 3.0 doesn’t happen exactly at the same time as the repack, it’s generally just the software loaded in the exciter that will need to change. One of the benefits that broadcasters now have that they didn’t when they made the switch to digital is that we have migrated to a unified hardware platform that is software-defined and ATSC 3.0 will be an extension of that approach.