Here’s the problem. At most, broadcasters have 39 months to complete their move to a new channel assignment if and when the incentive auction is complete.
That’s not much time, especially when certain finite industry resources — most notably the crews qualified to work on tall TV towers — are taken into consideration.
It simply takes time to rig a tower, uninstall a six ton antenna from the top of a tower — worst case scenario — and install a new one. And that’s just the most obvious antenna- and tower-related challenge.
There are many others, including what some call the tower aperture, or size of vacant places on the tower that may or may not be sufficient for the size of the new antenna to be mounted; minimizing the impact on other tenants on the tower; and weather, which must be taken into consideration. Each of these, and many others, contribute to delays the industry can ill afford as the 39-month clock ticks down to zero.
To expedite antenna replacement, many are advocating a two-step tango on TV towers where crews install an auxiliary, broadband side-mount antenna first to keep a station on air. Then later, when the smoke clears from the mad dash to the repack finish line, design, build and install a permanent antenna that replicates as closely as possible today’s coverage contour.
An ex parte notification to the FCC dated July 29 from T-Mobile makes the case.
“Broadcast auxiliary antennas will play an important role in the transition of broadcast television operations following the close of the 600 MHz incentive auction because these antennas bridge the gap between the broadcasters’ current and final channel assignments,” it says.
These antennas “provide added flexibility to both broadcasters and the commission,” the filing says.
“Among other things, broadcasters can prepare for a smooth transition by purchasing broadband auxiliary antennas prior to knowing their final channel assignments because the broadband antenna is not customized for a particular channel, but rather can tune to any one of a wide range of channels as needed depending on the broadcaster’s final channel assignment,” T-Mobile says in the filing.
This type of temporary antenna is attractive for other reasons as well. They are relatively light, simple to install and can be used post-transition as a backup, or — depending on the auxiliary antenna’s pattern — can be removed from the tower and reinstalled elsewhere as part of a single frequency network made possible by the ATSC 3.0, next-generation TV standard.
“Going to a two-step is not going to require a gin pole and will require much lighter rigging equipment,” says Jay Martin, Dielectric VP of sales, adding that the National Association of Tower Erectors is soon expected to release new gin pole requirements that could introduce delays as tower crews strengthen or replace them. (A gin pole typically only comes into play when replacing a top-mount antenna on a tall tower.)
The two-step process also improves the odds of a successful flash cut to new channel assignments, says Bill Harland, VP of marketing at antenna and tower manufacturer Electronics Research Inc.
For a flash cut to work, all stations moving to new channel assignments will have to be ready to go at once. Relying on temporary antennas decreases the likelihood of having to wait for stragglers to finish more complicated, longer installations of top-mount antennas, he says.
However, not everyone is convinced that the two-step tango will play as big of a role in the success of the repack as advocates suggest.
Cindy Hutter Cavell, managing partner at engineering consultancy Cavell, Mertz & Associates, says the approach will simply complicate things further.
“I fail to see how temporary antennas expedite things, because now you’ve added another installation into the mix,” she says. “OK, you now have one or two or six interim antennas on this tower, so you have to strengthen the tower to accommodate them all. So that saves you time how?”
Scott Martin, director of broadcast sales for Radio Frequency Systems, counters, saying that the fact that an auxiliary antenna is broadband means multiple stations could have a way to share the antenna.
The company has redesigned an auxiliary broadband antenna it sells in Australia to do just that in the U.S. market, he says.
“If there is any capacity left on the tower at all, one of the advantages of this antenna is it is capable of service as a transitional antenna for more than one station. You can actually combine multiple stations into it and accommodate the pre- and post-transition channels for up to three stations. That would effectively reduce the tower loading by requiring one antenna as opposed to three.”
There are a couple of other caveats, however, when it comes to the two-step tango. Both involve FCC rules and regulations, says Dielectric’s Martin.
Broadcasters moving to new channel assignments are entitled to reimbursement of qualified expenses incurred as part of the move from the $1.75 billion congressionally authorized relocation fund. However, there appears to be uncertainty about whether an auxiliary antenna used in a two-step transition is a reimbursable expense.
On the one side are people like ERI’s Harland. “The reimbursement funds are supposed to cover any reasonable expense, and if you need to build an auxiliary facility to build out your repacked facility, I would think that would qualify as a reasonable expense,” he says.
On the other side are those like Dielectric’s Martin, who seek clarity from the FCC on the matter. “In the commission’s mind, anybody who currently has a licensed replacement aux antenna can get reimbursements on a replacement aux antenna,” he says. “However, if you don’t have a licensed aux antenna, which is about 100 stations, it’s subject to other terms and conditions, which have not been defined.”
Dielectric’s Martin has another concern as well that he says the FCC must address.
“Typically you have a finite amount of time to get on air with your full service and fill your full contour. If you do not do that, your contour is no longer protected,” says Martin.
However, side-mount antennas in the vast majority of cases will be unable to replicate a station’s current pattern. “So the commission is going to have to grant a type of special temporary authority or a type of guarantee that your contours will be protected for X amount of time till you get that permanent antenna in place,” he says.
It would appear stations may wish to wait to lace up their shoes until after the FCC has cleared the regulatory dance floor of obstacles and they can two-step tango without any hindrances.