RF: Leading the Way

Years ago, who would ever have guessed that the fate of any NAB convention would be based on television RF product sales? As a writer covering the RF booths for more than 30 years, I didn’t sense this possibility until a few years ago. But today it’s the real story of the 2006 NAB Convention.

When TV stations were cornered into gearing up for DTV, their budgets were overwhelmed by the cost of towers, transmission lines, antennas, power hungry transmitters and auxiliary equipment. In fact, some GMs were faced with life and death decisions. Marginally profitable stations scrapped their acquisition, production and processing equipment plans. Profitable stations scaled back as well, essentially sending the television broadcast equipment manufacturing industry into a recession.

You’d think that the TV transmitter companies would be the short term winners. They weren’t! Mandate or not, stations became experts in filing waivers with the FCC, so until the last six months, the long awaited avalanche of transmitter orders wasn’t happening.

Now, with the July deadline upon us, theory is ready for a head-on crash with reality!

As one transmitter manufacturer recently told me, “We came into 2006 with a backlog of 30 orders. The way it stands now, we probably couldn’t fulfill a new order until, maybe, August.”

Fortunately, there are hundreds of stations that have satisfied the mandate to put a DTV signal on the air. By now, many of their budgets are easing their way back to more traditional acquisition budgets. For the others, it will take a while to contemplate acquisition, production and processing purchases. But the fact is that because of the July deadline, the industry can see a new beginning happening.

Of course, we’ll find some stations crashing into reality in 2009, but 2006 is our turning point. And along with this movement will come a whole new series of questions without answers. At least the new questions won’t be settled by FCC mandates.

The new buzz at this NAB will center on what many see as a new opportunity: TV broadcasters will ponder mobile TV. Transmitter manufacturers will find ways to cash in on their transmission expertise, because thousands of these transmitters will be needed to make mobile networks viable.

Without a lot of fanfare and horn-tooting, RF manufacturers such as Axcera, Harris and Thales have been developing transmitters, as well as end-to-end products, to complement networks that deliver video content to handheld devices. Even Dielectric has a new series of antennas designed to operate in the upper and lower segments of the 700 MHz band.

Listed as MobileMedia antennas, the new line has been tailored especially for this new service. This includes slotted coaxial antennas as well as panel designs, vertical, elliptical and circular polarization.

Axcera and others will be involved with demos that include the Central Hall environment. Undoubtedly, no matter what manufacturers say, this will be a consumer-driven revolution. If stations dismiss it out of hand, will another opportunity come and go?

For certain, sans the mobile TV surge, not a lot will be really new and different in the RF booths. At AI (formerly Acrodyne), where sales are reportedly climbing substantially, the company will be billing itself as “Mr. Reliability.” Sounds a bit like “Mr. Good Wrench?” Not a bad idea these days.

Axcera will be front and center on mobile TV, but the company has one other new product area worth a visit. They have developed a new, fully adaptive exciter dubbed the “Axciter.” It can set up the entire transmitter in just minutes. Its embedded on-air signal will keep you on the air; processing handles a powerful graphical user interface (GUI) and adaptive correction processing. It also handles DTV Vision signal analysis systems like a true piece of test equipment, and it has a true VGA display. Equally important, future software updates will be easy to install.

Of course, Axcera will also show a sampling of their main transmitters and translators.

DMT U.S.A. will display a variety of transmitters and translators, including a dual-mode solid state transmitter, and an air-cooled 2 kW solid state transmitter. DMT’s lineup has appeal to many market segments, including high to medium power, LPTV, translators, government and military transmitter users.

Larcan will promote the concept that their Magnum transmitters are “bullet proof,” mainly because from the ground up they were designed with redundancy and ease-of-maintenance as high priorities.

Larcan is also one of the leaders in the design of translators to meet DTV demands.

Also pushing the envelope on mobile TV, Harris will also unveil their HD and SD DL-860 serial digital “Legalizer” which legalizes your signal, insuring proper output values. All its limits are variable, which allows for custom configurations. The DL-860 also supports the Leitch Navigator and NUCLEUS user-customizable control panels.

Thales, under the Thomson Grass Valley moniker, will display end-to-end solutions for mobile TV.

At press time, the company was reporting record sales of their IOT-equipped transmitters. For the present, their transmitters will show the Thales name, but even if that changes, these will still be the tried and true Thales designs. Affinity and Paragon names won’t be changed.

While the FCC deadlines are driving sales up the DTV mountain, keep in mind that all the latest transmitters are packing real savings features. E2V, CPI (Eimac), L3 Communications, and Thomson Tubes are now in the cool seat of transmitter final amplifiers.

Since these tubes are all designed to maximize efficiency, they are also running cooler at the transmitter site. Power bills attached to these devices translates to immediate savings. And, some stations are also reporting that their air conditioning bills, because of the cooler, efficient operation, are also dropping.

We’ll discover soon enough just how many stations have met the FCC deadline for power maximization. Next will come another crashing reality: 2009 and sunset for analog. The results of the current deadline will show that those who opt for 2009 will be left behind in DTV experience, other station equipment updates, and perhaps a last shot at keeping their licenses.

The clock is running.

Ron Merrell is the executive editor.