Sanjay Talwani /
09.07.2005 12:00 AM
Prairie Public TV Gets Iced, Makes Ice Cream
ND broadcaster jumpstarts DTV after freak storm devastates transmission facilities

DEVILS LAKE, N.D.

On May 12, 2004, a spring ice storm laid waste to the antenna and transmitter of KGFE-TV, Channel 2 near Grand Forks, N.D., knocking it off the air and temporarily chilling the digital TV transition strategy of Prairie Public TV in this sparsely populated stretch of Upper Midwest.

But instead of trying to rebuild an analog facility that's doomed to eventual shut-off, PPTV has used the event as an opportunity to jump ahead with its DTV buildout.

A WISE USE OF FUNDS

"There was quite a decision-making process early on. Your first instinct is to get back on the air with Channel 2. But after looking at the options of putting up a temporary antenna and putting up line and a low-power transmitter, those costs amounted to tens of thousands of dollars," said Prairie Public Chief of Engineering Jack Anderson. "We didn't feel it was a wise use of the funds available, and we tried to make it an opportunity to expedite our plan that we had in place to begin with."

Now, not yet 16 months after the storm, Prairie Public has received a stack of permits, found funding, and is on the verge of completing a new tower and DTV installation near Devils Lake, N.D. that will cover roughly the west half of KGFE's old coverage area. A DTV antenna in Crookston, Minn., got up and online early in the DTV transition and covers much of the eastern half of the area.

At the time of the storm, Prairie Public had been leasing space since 1974 on a tower, but that deal was set to end because of the host station's own DTV buildout. So PPTV's plan was to eventually replace analog KGFE with the Crookston and Devils Lake facilities in any event.

"Instead of investing in analog equipment, it was more prudent to expedite the process of building the Devils Lake facility and essentially not rebuild KGFE," he said. "We were figuring out how to fund the Devils Lake facility, and this created an opportunity for us to do that."

STARTING OVER

Initially, Anderson and his crew couldn't even approach the tower because ice was hurtling down from the 1,400-foot structure at lethal speeds. The transmission building below was damaged and water leaked onto the vintage 1974 Harris Gates transmitter. Compo-nents shorted out and replacement parts were impossible to get.

"At the end of the day, the site was a total loss," An-derson said.

Prairie Public's insurer agreed, so the old Gates was redeployed to the local landfill and Ander-son set out restoring service as much as possible while he undertook the technical and regulatory challenges of jumping ahead to DTV.

Prairie Public received FCC permission for very-low-power analog broadcast from a microwave tower in Grand Forks, essentially covering the city limits. An-

derson got digital-to-analog conversion equipment for some local cable headends, assuring carriage of the Crookston-based DTV channel on local cable, and helped others receive the signal of PPTV flagship station KFME in Fargo. In Devils Lake, Anderson set the cablers up with Schedule X, PBS's national satellite feed. The main local operator there has since been connected by fiber to its Grand Forks facilities to acquire the Prairie Public feeds from Fargo.

"Essentially a big chunk of the population served by KGFE was able to be restored," Anderson said.

Missing from that mix are over-the-air viewers outside the immediate Grand Forks area, who have lost their signal and for whom the new DTV facility will do no good absent a digital receiver. But that service gap is just a preview of what will happen to the millions of over-the-air viewers expected to lose service as analog broadcasts end around the country in upcoming years.

JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS

Before work could begin on the new Devils Lake tower (located in farmland east of the town), Prairie Public had to gain a variety of federal and local authorizations and secure the funding for it all.

Anderson said PPTV had to attain FCC and FAA approval for its plans before it could even seek emergency funding from PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Commerce Department's Public Television Facility Program. Even Industrie Canada had to sign off on the channel allotment.

The large grants PPTV sought called for local matching funds; the broadcaster's insurance payoff from the storm damage provided that leverage.

The federal "emergency" grants were also outside the normal grant cycles, Anderson said, and he feels lucky CPB and PBS even allowed him to apply for the grants, not to mention actually get them awarded. The grants paid for a new transmission building at the new site, a 700-foot tower (at press time up above 200 feet), a Harris 5.5 kW Solid State DTV transmitter, and a Dielectric top-mounted TFU-30GTH Channel 25 antenna.

PPTV also bought a five-hop Alcatel digital microwave system and put up three 199-foot microwave repeater towers to extend its digital signal, originally hopping from Fargo to Grand Forks, on west to the new Devils Lake facility.

"When we had the ice storm, a lot of things had to fall into place," Anderson said. "Because it was such a large project, we had to tap several different funding sources to make it all happen."

Now, the only thing separating Prairie Public from its multiplexed broadcast (high-definition plus two standard-definition streams) in Devils Lake is the availability of the tower crew, which is tied up with DTV upgrade work around the region, Anderson said. But he's hopeful for completion of the tower and transmission by year's end, North Dakota's famed short construction season notwithstanding.

"Any number of things could have gone wrong," Anderson said. "I told my guys, the wheels could fall off the cart any time, because any one of these things could prevent us from doing the project."

"And amazingly, it all happened."


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