In 2004, Nextel Communications started a project that would reach into most U.S. TV stations and ultimately deliver upwards of a billion dollars in new equipment and services to broadcasters. Known officially as the Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) Relocation, those who worked on the project called it the 2 GHz Relocation.
I know, because I was one of those people hired by Nextel in May 2005 as a broadcast engineer on that project. Nextel and Sprint merged to become Sprint Nextel, which continued the project until its official completion last month.
If a spectrum relocation of this magnitude had been done before, we weren't aware of it. Each day for the first couple of years was another increment in the learning curve.
"The initial steps of building a new team, sizing the project, gaining consensus with the broadcast organizations and designing the process and systems for a project that had never been taken on before was the largest challenge," said Michael Degitz, vice president of 2 GHz relocation for Sprint Nextel. "After the initial surge, the constant challenge was to mold the team and processes as we learned from our experiences."
Gaining consensus with the broadcast industry was painstaking. After an initial burst of work in 2005 and 2006 to meet with broadcasters in affected markets, negotiations over legal and financial details brought the project to a crawl.
(L-R) Jim Stanley, Sprint broadcast engineer, Michael Maher, business manager and Cindy Hutter Cavell, director of broadcast engineering for Sprint Nextel, update project information.
Sprint wanted the project to have no cost consequences to 2 GHz users. However, some licensees were in locales that required payment of taxes when they received new equipment. While lawyers and accountants negotiated, all we in the back office could do was to keep our heads down, help stations compile 2 GHz equipment inventories and review gear for eligibility under the project.
All engineering decisions were under the management of Lucinda Hutter, the director of broadcast engineering for Sprint Nextel. (She married and became Cindy Hutter Cavell shortly after I joined the project.) As tax and financial issues were hammered out, her team reviewed the inventories from more than 1,000 stations, with each item being considered to see if it were eligible for replacement.
"We had only a few Sprint staff engineers to evaluate equipment packages for over 1,000 licensees and a short project lifecycle," Hutter Cavell said. "Managing the sheer magnitude of the project logistics was the largest challenge."
A couple of inventories stand out. At least two companies had warehouses full of existing 2 GHz gear leased to end users. One of these literally had bags of small and marginally operational transmitters and receivers, each of which was replaced in the relocation project.
With replacement transmitters costing about the same as a well-equipped Toyota, the owner of that leasing company went from working stiff to wealthy as the project filled his shelves with new gear.
At many facilities, inventories just hinted at the overall complexity of installed systems.
"While the inventory verifications that were done were instructive, and the checklists that the manufacturers provided to the stations were excellent, often there were hidden aspects of a station's system that weren't known until part way through installation," Hutter Cavell said.
Manufacturers were both excited and terrified at the prospect of replacing the nation's BAS equipment during a five-year period. One company president privately stated that gaining $100 million in business was an amazing opportunity, even if he wasn't sure how he was going to get there.
Primary suppliers included MRC, Nucomm, RF Central, NSI, Troll and GMS, and the project kept integrators and truck builders such as Wolf Coach, TEC, Frontline and Shook busy as well.
Out in the field, Sprint Nextel's small team of engineers often found equipment that hadn't been looked at in years.
"We had no idea how complicated it was going to be," said Ellen Hyker, who was Sprint's broadcast engineer for the West Coast region through March 2010. "Inventories, verifications, missing equipment, equipment that never got inventoried, equipment that was inventoried that didn't exist, stations that forgot to mention receive sites they had, equipment that was at one station but owned by another station—every possible permutation happened."
When Nextel first announced the project, representatives visited stations with neat PowerPoint presentations showing timelines of how the project would unfold in each market.
"Our original project plan was for every market to be completed in 'x' number of weeks or months, with [Nextel's] engineer handling a few markets at a time, then moving on to the next few, spread out over three years," Hyker said. "It looked good on paper, but it quickly became apparent that not only was everything going to take much longer than anyone thought, you'd have to juggle all phases of all markets at the same time."
Once it was clear that the project was actually going to happen, many stations had concerns about how well the new digital equipment would work—particularly with a reduction in bandwidth from 18 MHz to 12 MHz per channel.
"When the project first began, there was very little empirical data on the use of COFDM microwave for electronic newsgathering," said Jim Stanley, Sprint's broadcast engineer for the Mid-Atlantic region for the first four years of the project. "We were touching the heart of each station's news operation; our biggest challenge was to convince broadcasters that the new equipment would actually work as advertised."
Stanley left the project in 2008 to become the director of engineering at WLKY-TV in Louisville. His perspective from both sides of the project is unique.
"Overall, I think it is amazing just how smoothly the project went."
DOING THE 'RIGHT THING'
Stanley has his own idea about why he considers the project a job well done.
"I believe the real key to the success of the project was Sprint Nextel's commitment to 'doing the right thing,' regardless of the cost," he said. "Inclusion of spectrum monitoring for station central receive sites, formal training for operators on the new gear, even replacement of worn Nycoils on station ENG trucks (which honestly should have been an individual station expense)—all these were items that Sprint Nextel undertook to address at considerable cost, not because they had to under the scope of the FCC's Report and Order, but rather because it was the right thing to do.
"There are many 2 GHz BAS licensees out there that are much better off today than they were at the beginning of the relocation; it's one of the reasons I am so proud to have been associated with the project," Stanley said.
On July 15, Anchorage, Alaska, became the last market to switch to the new 2 GHz band plan. The final cost is not known exactly but is estimated by Sprint Nextel to be $750 million.
With the project completed, broadcast industry representatives are breathing a sigh of relief and offering praise.
"The National Association of Broadcasters congratulates Sprint on completing the herculean task of transitioning the broadcast auxiliary services to a new, more efficient spectrum plan in the 2 GHz frequency band," said Gordon H. Smith, NAB president and CEO. "During this process, NAB's members worked closely with Sprint's network of engineers, technicians and other skilled personnel. We applaud the successful result that we all achieved, despite the highly complex, comprehensive nature of the BAS transition."
David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), called the project, "a textbook example of cross-industry cooperation."
Nothing like the BAS Relocation had been previously attempted, at least not on this scale. Although it took a while to get going, it's put stations across the country on a level playing field with the same state-of-the-art equipment. And it did so at no cost to the stations… with the possible exception of a few gray hairs.
Bob Kovacs was Sprint Nextel's broadcast engineer for the West region, which included the area from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. He can be contacted at email@example.com.