A new plan from AT&T on how best to repack television stations on a regional basis following completion of the incentive auction has received kudos from parts of the TV industry knowledgeable about what will be required. However, there appears to be a few missing pieces, the most glaring of which is the lack of leadership to shepherd the TV broadcasters, tower crews, vendors and others through the process. Read the first part of this Special Report here.
An AT&T plan for a region-by-region repack of the TV band following the incentive auction is receiving generally favorable reviews from various quarters of the television industry.
“This is the first time I have seen a wireless company that gets it — one that understands what broadcasters are facing with the repack,” says Jay Adrick, an RF consultant and former vice president with Harris Broadcast.
The AT&T proposal, submitted to the FCC earlier this month, draws on the lessons learned from other spectrum projects — including the 800 MHz reconfiguration, AWS-1 relocation and DTV transition — and identifies the scope of the repack and proposes a regional plan for transitioning stations to new channels.
Adrick, who helped to author a report on the repack put together for NAB by Digital Tech Consulting, points out that the AT&T proposal closely tracks the regional relocation methodology proposed in the DTC report a year ago.
“It uses geographic terrain barriers to isolate regions where possible; uses state lines where possible and breaks down [the regions] into subregions and even goes further than that to the market level,” he says.
“In general, I would say I think I am in agreement with everything they put out there,” he adds.
An AT&T spokesperson declined an offer to comment for this article.
The AT&T plan would phase in the repack on a regional basis. It divides the continental United States into for major regions — West, Central, Midwest and East. Each is broken into four sub-regions, with the exception of the East Region, which is divided into three sub-regions. All sub-regions can be further broken into individual markets as required.
The plan says taking a unified, national approach to the repack exposes the entire project to risks and delays. A regional approach mitigates those risks and makes it easier to manage the myriad factors that could cause delays, it says.
It places extra emphasis on zones that border on Canada and Mexico and recommends a means for managing the daisy chain consequences of the repack where the move of a station in one market to a new channel could affect operations of another station on the same channel in an adjacent market.
It prioritizes moving channels based on whether and how doing so ripples out.
“We did what they propose, which is take care of the low-hanging fruit first. That’s the no-brainer part of it,” says Cindy Hutter Cavell, managing partner of engineering consultancy Cavell, Mertz & Associates.
Hutter Cavell, who headed the 2 GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service relocation project for Sprint, credits AT&T for having “a handle on it [the repack] to a certain extent and being “better informed than some of their [wireless] compatriots.”
However, she questions AT&T’s proposal for relying on a computer model to do the rest of the work.
“It is complicated [the daisy chain effect], and I think computer models will get you part of the way there, but not all of the way,” she says.
Bill Harland, VP of marketing at antenna and tower manufacturer Electronics Research Inc., says he too is happy to see the AT&T plan tackle the daisy chain consequences of the repack. “There are going to be lots of them,” he says.
The regional approach AT&T advocates in its plan is a positive development, says Harland.
“To just say, ‘Here is your new channel,’ and ‘Everybody have at it,’ isn’t helpful,” he says. “There is going to have to be some coordination because some stations are going to have to change to their new channels in advance of others to allow these new changes to happen,” he says.
“Having some kind of regional rollout play is going to be the most expeditious way to do this.”
While generally upbeat about the proposal, Hutter Cavell identifies a few assumptions — some explicit and others implied — that AT&T has made in its proposal that raise red flags. One is defining complex installations such as those being at sites with towers taller than 1,000 feet.
“Anybody who has spent time around a television station RF installation knows that the height of the tower is only a piece of it,” she says.
Multiple other factors, including whether there are other towers close to the one under consideration, whether FM stations are located on the tower, how many TV stations occupy the tower, zoning issues and whether a station is part of a community antenna, are just as important, if not more, than tower height, she says.
While Hutter Cavell gives the AT&T plan kudos for demonstrating the company understands how “special events” and “weather issues” could impact the repack, she says it overlooks other factors. “They didn’t seem to take notice of things like sweeps periods, which are still important to broadcasters, both FM and TV,” she says.
Based on the real-world experience of the 2 GHz BAS relocation project, Hutter Cavell also cautions AT&T of falling into the trap of assuming a high degree of similarity from station to station.
“Someone once told me: ‘If you’ve seen one television station, you’ve seen one television station,’ ” she says. “We certainly saw that at 2 GHz where everyone thought, ‘Everybody has the same gear.’ They don’t.”
The BAS relocation project demonstrated stations have different equipment, use it and configure it differently and sometimes don’t even know exactly what they have up on their towers, says Hutter Cavell. “Everything is a one-off.”
The AT&T plan for repacking TV spectrum is also mum on one crucial ingredient, say both Adrick and Hutter Cavell. That’s leadership.
“Leadership has to come from somewhere, and I don’t see the FCC stepping up to the plate to provide it, which I think is a bad thing,” Adrick says. “If the wireless folks and broadcasters can get together and work out a plan, that’s great, but somebody is going to have to be the leader.”
Hutter Cavell echoes that sentiment. Unlike the 2 GHz BAS relocation project where Hutter Cavell took charge on behalf of Sprint, the TV spectrum repack has no single person or entity responsible for administering the process, she says.
“The FCC has told everybody that they have it under control and are handling it,” she says. “But there has to be some body of people who are available to answer questions.”
Recalling that on more than one occasion an ENG antenna rigger called her from a cell phone while on a tower to address problems that arose in real time, Hutter Cavell wonders who that central point of contact and authority will be this time around where the size of the equipment and the stakes at risk are even greater.
This is Part 2 of a special report on the repack. Read the other part here.