RF EXPRESSWho's In Control?

Doctors don't make house calls. Commercial airlines no longer use onboard radio operators. Locomotives no longer need a fireman or someone riding in the caboose. And television transmitters no longer have babysitters, at least not the way they once did. In the early days of television, every station had a bevy of technicians and engineers. The engineer assigned for each shift to ride herd on the transmitter's critical operating parameters was called the transmitter engineer.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

Doctors don't make house calls. Commercial airlines no longer use onboard radio operators. Locomotives no longer need a fireman or someone riding in the caboose. And television transmitters no longer have babysitters, at least not the way they once did. In the early days of television, every station had a bevy of technicians and engineers. The engineer assigned for each shift to ride herd on the transmitter's critical operating parameters was called the transmitter engineer.

Today, except for some extremely remote transmitter sites or ones planted high on a mountaintop, the FCC does not require an on-site transmitter engineer. They were dropped during the same period when the FCC also decided stations didn't need for their chief engineer to have a First Class License.

Sensing the FCC was offering overhead relief to station owners, stations began paring back their engineering staffs.

Admittedly, while these fundamental changes were taking place, television transmitter design and manufacturing techniques were making great strides toward delivering more reliable rigs. Not coincidentally, studio equipment was making great strides, especially when solid-state devices invaded the industry. When those devices reached the transmitter side of the industry, station bean counters took note of the solid-state Mean-Time-Between-Failure (MTBF) numbers. They grinned and said, "Fifteen engineers good. Ten engineers better."

During the solid-state revolution, station engineering heads were faced with reduced staff, while at the same time confronted with a new technology that was alien to them. Even manufacturers were at first hard-pressed to troubleshoot solid-state circuits. Sensing the seriousness of the technology/knowledge gap, R&D engineers began to devise diagnostics to give station engineers real help in saving time.

Monitoring Was Always Critical

While monitoring the key parameters of transmitter operation had always been important, the integration of solid state circuits into those parameters made monitoring and control all the more important.

Fortunately, increasingly useful CRT monitoring opened the door for sensing circuits. Not only did this allow the engineers to wipe the sweat off their brows, it allowed them to track circuit trends. In other words, a chief engineer could visually see that while no circuit alarms had gone off, trouble was pending.

While true remote monitoring had been born, the industry continued to see engineering staffs dwindle. When computers entered the RF domain, the question around the industry was whether or not the chief engineer was still relevant. After all, chiefs could use a modem to connect much of their equipment directly to the manufacturers for troubleshooting assistance. Wouldn't it become possible to remotely monitor and control the transmitter?

Pass Me The Remote

Today, remote monitoring and control is more than a wild dream of R&D engineers. Some manufacturers, specifically Harris, have designed systems that can act almost as the RF plant's "Big Brother." But ask Harris if they believe that this will further erode the relevance of the chief engineer and they'll quickly tell you what all transmitter manufacturers are saying today: These new systems are designed to assist the chief engineer, not replace him.

They insist that as we shift to DTV and digital equipment dominates the market, the chief engineers welcome the relief that remote control and monitoring can bring, since they are the ones responsible for keeping everything at the station up and running.

With this in mind, you'll find that the new breed of television transmitters have been literally designed from the bottom up to accommodate remote monitoring, control, and diagnostics. And until you get to the very lowest power levels and price tags, even upgradeable transmitters have been designed with these features in mind. Transmitter manufacturers agree that such features allow the chief engineer to divert his staff to other equally relevant operation and maintenance tasks.

So Who Is In Control?

Today, it's possible to shift remote control and monitoring to group engineers, contract engineers, consulting engineers, and transmitter manufacturing engineers. Of course, these types of services come with a price.

There has been some speculation that a transmitter manufacturer could develop a remote control and monitoring room, staffed with engineers charged with keeping a critical eye on numerous stations. That may someday happen, but these engineers would still be charged with alerting the chief that problems were pending, and then following up with corrective procedures. In a sense, they would be acting as the transmitter engineer of the old days. The difference is they would be off-site and not on the station's engineering payroll.

A Rare Breed

Historically, no other piece of equipment at the station has required and received closer manufacturer and station engineering relationships than the transmitter. That may be largely due to the fact that RF engineers have always been a rare breed: They understand RF isn't really a black art.

With much of the remainder of the station's complement of equipment continuing to evolve to digital, diagnostics have eased the maintenance burden. However, much of the acquisition and switching equipment doesn't require the kind of special knowledge and experience required of those focusing on RF.

Another wrinkle in this equation is that even transmitter manufacturers are finding that college engineering graduates have increasingly focused on computers. This means that the RF engineering talent pool isn't growing. If anything, it continues to shrink. The result is that the transmitter manufacturers and station engineers are continuing to close ranks.

While at first blush, transmitter technology seems to be spotlighting high-efficiency UHF devices; the fact is that if you ask any transmitter manufacturer where their emphasis is, they'll tell you the pedal is to the metal on customer service.

Engineering Realities

It seems apparent that many of the events that have brought television engineering to this point were changes that at one time seemed distracting. Now, they appear to have been inevitable. As the industry went through multiple ownership changes, bean counters increasingly took control. Station staffs were trimmed, and engineers were the most vulnerable because they only indirectly added to the economic success of a station (unless, of course, if the station suddenly went off-air).

Along came technologies that forever changed the way stations operate. But even as these technologies have settled in, it has become apparent that transmitter manufacturers have never overlooked the relevance of the chief engineer and their diminished staffs. And even with the coming of remote control, monitoring and diagnostics, there is still a need at every station for a technology translator.

While manufacturers could literally, at some point, take over the technical operation of a station, that's not their intent. After all, they're in the business of selling equipment and services, not running television stations.

Editor's Note: Special thanks go to Ai, Axcera, Harris, Itelco, Larcan, Thales, and many other specialized RF component manufacturers for their patience and cooperation. Thanks also to the many chief engineers whom I've interviewed for the RF Express.

Ron Merrell is the executive editor.