FCC freezes and transmitter choices

RF engineer Don Markley updates us on what's going on with the DTV transition, and on what's in the transmitter field, which has evolved from a choice between "the meatball or the other guy" into a stable of solid players offering high-quality products
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The transmitter field has grown to the point where engineers no longer have to choose between “the meatball or the other guy.” Three companies/products available are pictured (clockwise from front left): Axcera’s Innovator HX high-power VHF transmitter, Thales’ DCX Paragon MSDC-IOT UHF digital transmitter and Harris’ Atlas Analog UHF transmitter.

FCC freeze

There are two big things to report in the world of DTV. One has to do with the FCC, the other has to do with transmitters.

The FCC has dropped the other shoe. In August, the commission announced a freeze on most types of applications for television stations. Basically, if an application involves an improvement in facilities, it won't be acceptable (see DA 04-2446 [MB released Aug. 3, 2004]). The freeze covers several petitions for rulemaking, including those concerning a change in DTV channels within the DTV Table of Allotments, new DTV allotment proceedings, swapping in-core DTV and NTSC channels, changing DTV channel allotments among two or more licensees, changing NTSC channels or communities of license, modifications applications that would increase a station's DTV service area (with conditions), and Class A displacement applications. The FCC is allowing applications where the applicants are working to resolve international coordination or where the station lost its tower as a result of Sept. 11, 2001.

The commission stated that this freeze will last until the new DTV Table of Allotments is complete, which is going to be some significant distance away — just this side of swine aviators. The first step toward cleaning up the Table of Allotments is cleaning up the existing database. That would seem to be a worthy goal, and it's one that the FCC has attempted several times now. First, the commission changed it from a flat file (usable) to the current relational configuration (pretty much unusable). The commission also went through the process of requiring all stations to register their towers to correct all coordinate values and elevations.

While many stations handled the registration process by having either their consulting engineers or a surveyor confirm the coordinates, then having their consultants check the elevations, many stations simply went to the transmitter room and copied everything off the station license. By failing to require that a qualified person check the data filed, the commission ensured that the database would still contain bad material. On the good side, it's not as bad as it used to be. Many stations do now have accurate data on file. In any case, the first step in the new process is a request to all television broadcasters to check their records in the database and notify the commission of any errors that they find. When the corrections are made, the database will be as accurate as can reasonably be expected, given that some broadcasters will simply ignore the request — just like they handled their tower registration.

The commission published a new Report and Order on Sept. 7, 2004, in the matter of the Second Periodic Review of the Commission's Rules and Policies Affecting the Conversion to Digital Television (MB Docket No. 03-15, RM 9832) (FCC 04-192). This document basically sets out the procedures and timeline for stations to elect which channel they plan to use for their final DTV operation. The document is lengthy and covers a lot of procedural ground. For most of it, stations are strongly advised to contact their attorney. This thing is going to be a lengthy process for some. The first channel election will identify the channel that each station would like to have if possible. For many stations, this will be the end of the process and their request will be granted. But their choice, coupled with other stations' choices, may result in DTV interference. The commission will attempt to resolve the conflicts. To avoid unanticipated problems, stations should work closely with legal counsel to make sure that they jump appropriately at the correct times. One almost feels sorry for attorneys when it comes to issues such as this — almost, but not quite.

There are two big dates that the engineering community must keep in mind. July 1, 2005, is the “use-it-or-lose-it” deadline for DTV licensees affiliated with the top four networks in markets one through 100. Those licensees that receive a tentative DTV channel designation on a channel that is not their current DTV channel must serve at least 100 percent of the number of viewers served by their 1997 facility.

By July 1, 2006, the same use-it-or-lose-it requirement hits for the rest of the commercial stations and for all noncommercial stations. But the replication requirement changes to 80 percent of the 1997 population. (By the way, all population figures are based on the 2000 census.)

Transmitters

“Use it or lose it” doesn't mean that a station will be thrown off the air. It means that the FCC will no longer protect the originally authorized service area from interference. Others may only be required to protect the actual station's operation and not its allocation. In the more widely spaced markets, that probably won't be a big problem — but it sure will be for the top 50 or so. In any case, station chief engineers should get together with their management, consulting engineers and attorneys to plan their strategy for the final transition. The last days are coming; be prepared.

Years ago, there were two types of station engineers. The first type was the conservative, careful engineer who simply bought from RCA — everything from antenna to audio. This type of individual was said to be afflicted (or blessed) with “meatball worship.” That isn't a religion practiced by Dom DeLouise — it refers to the globe that appeared as part of the old RCA logo. Broadcasters recognized it as easily as consumers recognized Nipper — the dog seen in RCA advertisements listening to “His Master's Voice.” While there was no great adventure involved in this purchasing scheme, those who practiced it rarely were fired because they were buying high-quality stuff.

The other buyers, the non-meatball-loving crowd, primarily bought from GE. That was the other primary manufacturer of TV-origination equipment. Many argued that it was just as good as RCA. That may well be the case. But, just as engineers of those days would be found arguing the merits of Post versus K & E slide rules, broadcasters rigidly maintained their positions concerning the two broadcast giants. Those were the days when the NAB convention was held in Chicago three out of every four years, in the basement of the Conrad Hilton hotel. You could see everything on the floor — absolutely everything — in one good day. Everyone attending the convention, even engineers, were expected to show up in a suit and tie. At night, there were two penthouse areas that were used as courtesy suites by — you guessed it — RCA and GE. Anyone who was anyone could be found in those suites. The finger food and booze flowed freely. Broadcast engineering was a grand fraternity, and everyone was amazed at the industry's rate of growth.

Since those days, most manufacturers have undergone both name and personality changes.

First, we all know that RCA and GE are gone. GE sold its transmitter line to Harris, formerly Gates. Harris also bought up PYE, an excellent British manufacturer. RCA simply got out of the business. Emcee was picked up by Axcera, which had grown from a retrofit and LPTV supplier to a quality provider of high-power systems. Currently, the biggest in the field are Harris and Thales. Thales came from Comark when a massive influx of money and engineering arrived from Thompson et al. Now, in terms of quality and performance, Thales transmitters are right up there with anything built anywhere. Harris and Thales set a high standard that reflects extremely well on this country's manufacturing ability.

But, let's not forget other players in the industry. Larcan had a wonderful line of VHF equipment, which it joined with the UHF abilities of TTC. Again, a great product resulted. TTC, from the great mind of Byron St. Clair, had really been involved in the translator business and moved into high power. That move became successful when Larcan joined TTC, bringing more good engineering talent and cash.

The translator business also boosted another company, Acrodyne, to success. However, Acrodyne took a slightly different route of growth. It actively pursued the LPTV business, where it was highly successful. It courted the lower-power television broadcaster with a successful tube-type 5kW air-cooled transmitter. There are a lot of those transmitters around.

Acrodyne then joined others in the name-changing game, becoming Ai — ah, those marketers really know how to confuse us, don't they? Now, Ai has gotten involved with Nat Ostroff and the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Mr. Ostroff was not unfamiliar with turning around a transmitter company, and his influence on Ai has been profound. The company's product line now includes a full menu of high-powered transmitters for analog and DTV applications. Perhaps one of Ai's big developments has been its ESCIOT line of transmitters, which offer high overall efficiency.

For us RF types, it is truly a new day. There are at least five major manufacturers of television transmitters competing for the DTV business. Stations no longer have to choose between the meatball or the other guy. Now, station engineers need to spend some time evaluating several lines of products. They may feel more comfortable with size, but they certainly should look at the smaller firms as well. Several different manufacturers, including many whose names were never heard in the Hilton penthouse, have products that are certainly worth consideration. Of course, the names of most of the people reading this were also unknowns back then. This age stuff stinks, but it's better than following RCA into the darkness.

Don Markley is president of D.L. Markley and Associates, Peoria, IL.

Send questions and comments to:don_markley@primediabusiness.com