McAdams On: The Repack

Unknowable known unknowns February 26, 2016
LOS ANGELES—The post-incentive auction TV channel repack will make or break broadcasting. That’s not just my assessment, but the abridgment of many off-the-record conversations I’ve had over the last year with people who know a lot more than I do.

The 2009 digital transition wasn’t even a dress rehearsal. It was a read-through. This one’s for all the marbles.

My colleagues and I have been trying to ascertain for years how this would work, starting with an untried, two-tier automated auction system coupled with software that’s supposed to place up to 1,200 broadcast TV signals nationwide into a reduced spectrum footprint based on interference and population data that’s been contested from the outset.

The mechanics of repacking TV signals is complex beyond software calculations, as well. There are industrial, manufacturing and legal elements involved—namely, antenna fabrication capacity, the availability of properly trained tower crews and engineering experts, and the quiet period imposed by the Federal Communications Commission as of Jan. 12, 2016, when reverse auction applications were due.

The quiet period prohibits “communicating information relating to bids or bidding strategies, such as non-public information that bidders may access in the auction system, to broadcast licensees eligible to participate in the reverse auction or to forward-auction applicants, subject to specified exceptions.” 

In addition, broadcaster participation is anonymous, so a station’s staff may have little notion of what’s to come. The quiet period reinforces this dynamic in that station employees anticipating a shutdown may leave, which in turn could signal a station’s intention to participate.

Further, a station that elects to go off the air at a certain price may not get that price in the auction, and therefore may stay on the air, but most likely on a different channel—one to be determined after the auction.

So the same engineering team may have to either power down the station within 90 days or move it to a new channel assignment within 39 months, per FCC rules.

This 39-month window is disputed, with broadcast proponents saying it is not long enough, and wireless proponents saying it is. This was most recently illustrated in separate studies commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters and T-Mobile. Both were conducted by respected radio frequency engineering consultants. Both came to different conclusions.

The NAB’s study estimated that the 39-month window would accommodate fewer than half of the stations that will need to be repacked, due to the complexities mentioned above. Among other points, the study contends the supply of equipment, skilled crews and expertise is inadequate to pull off a 39-month repack. T-Mobile’s study contends otherwise.

I asked one expert in the industry if he had compared the two studies.

“Why are they coming up with conflicting conclusions?” I asked.

“Different clients. Pick the scenarios you want to get the results you want.”

This isn’t necessarily a cynical response. It simply is what it is. Perhaps reality lay somewhere between the two. For example, the NAB-commissioned study says there will be no more than 16 qualified crews for making TV tower modifications. The T-Mobile study says there are 41 such crews available today.

An accurate assessment of tower crews is crucial in that it is feasibly a matter of life or death. In a survey of 272 company managers conducted by Wireless Estimator between June 2013 and August 2014, 47 percent said, “ambitious client deadlines are considered to be a likely reason for accidents and fatalities.”

Tower fatalities peaked in 2006, the initial deadline year of the DTV transition. Nineteen tower techs lost their lives that year, according to Wireless Estimator’s fatality count.

Getting a handle on tower-industry capacity is not a straightforward endeavor. As Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of PCIA—The Wireless Association, was quoted as saying in October of 2014: “The number has always remained a moving target.”

The Wireless Estimator survey identified a total of 29,000 “wireless technicians [who] routinely work on elevated structures in the course of their employment.” This figure compares to 9,800 in 2006, but there are two caveats to assuming these numbers bear out T-Mobile’s position.

First, the 29,000 estimate included anyone “safety trained to climb” and whose job description “required them to perform those duties as necessary.”

The second is that the study was carried out when “hiring was at an all-time high to complete 4G build-outs.” This is significant because cellular towers range, on average, 50 to 200 feet in height. Broadcast towers are 10 times that high, limiting the number of crews to those qualified to climb tall steel.

Further, the survey found that the tower industry was hard pressed to keep up with the demand for crews to work on even the shorter structures:

“In May of 2014, AT&T’s capex spending freeze and a less feverish pitch by other carriers to complete their builds, began a marked decline in hiring, although many companies are still short qualified workers.”

I asked Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors—the tower industry trade group—about the number of crews qualified to work on structures 1,000 feet or more.

“There have been numerous studies commissioned on this subject with conflicting information,” he said. “The Digital Tech Consulting Study commissioned by NAB and the T-Mobile/Competitive Carriers Association study vary widely in regards to the number of tower crews qualified to work on tall broadcast structures. 

“NATE’s primary focus and commitment is educating the industry to ensure the post-incentive auction broadcast repacking work is conducted in a safe manner by the industry’s workforce.

“There is a sentiment among some of our members that there is definitely a shortage in the marketplace currently equipped to work on broadcast structures.”
 
The production capacity of the tower industry is but one uncertainty in a landscape of unknowns.

What, for example, is the recourse if the interference models used in the repack software are inadequate as some observers claim?

What if a station’s coverage area is altered by antenna pattern restrictions?

What happens to all the low-power TV and translator stations that are shut out of the spectrum? Good-bye to local business and jobs? (One LPTV, Latina Broadcasting of Daytona Beach, Fla., is currently suing the FCC to either allow it to participate in the auction or delay the March 29 start date.)

Is anyone ever going to mention this to the public? Is it not a part of the public discourse because those of us who have followed this industry for decades still can’t nail down a cogent narrative?

All this, and we’re still nowhere near the conversation about converting the infrastructure to ATSC 3.0.

Here’s how AT&T Vice President of Federal and Regulatory Affairs Joan Marsh characterized the repack at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference held in Washington in early February, according to Bloomberg BNA.

“I don’t think most people understand what an enormous lift this is going to be,” she said.

We couldn’t agree more.

Learn more about the post-incentive auction channel repack Tuesday, March 8, during an exclusive Webinar featuring the FCC’s Howard Symons; NAB’s Patrick McFadden and RF experts Jay Adrick and S. Merrill Weiss. Register here.

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