Slamming ENG Microwave

Ever watch a freight train being assembled in the switching yards?

The individual cars are pushed into each other, locking onto those super strong latch locks. In the process, some of the cars are nudged gently into place, while others gather too much speed and slam into adjoining cars. When that happens, you can hear the collisions all over the rail yard.

About 10 years ago the FCC brought forward a docket that paved the way for taking away microwave channels 1 and 2 from broadcast use and opened the way for other communications entities to buy into the spectrum.
For years, it sat out there as a theory that someday, someone with deep pockets would buy up some of that spectrum which had been "given" to broadcasters for ENG remotes.

Then, in 2004, Nextel made theory reality by acquiring rights to part of Channel 1. For a long time, Nextel had spent much of its resources fighting it out with interference problems in the 800 MHz band with public services, such as police, emergency services, fire departments, etc. Great move for Nextel, because now it had the open door to clear commercial communications.

Suddenly, with the spectrum floodgates opened to Nextel, we find that Sprint and Nextel decide to hook up in a mega-dollar merger. Timing! Everything is in the timing. It slid together like a gently nudged boxcar attaching itself to the next car in line.

It turns out, however, that the switching isn't as simple or as gentle as Nextel might lead us to believe. This turn of events is now referred to as the Broadcast Auxiliary Services (BAS) Relocation. In other words, as Nextel slides into place on Channel 1, broadcasters are in for a clang and bang bumping to other channels. Suddenly, the switching yard gets noisy, and not all is harmonious among the broadcast boxcars.

Now, the scenario takes a unique twist. It turns out that the BAS Relocation isn't going to happen at the expense of the broadcast budgets. Microwave manufacturers might be imagined to be cheering on the sidelines. Imagine... re-equipping broadcasters with guaranteed government money! But, it's not quite that simple.

There's Much More Involved

If you ask the folks at NSI about the relocation equipment implications, you get a clear picture of the complications.

NSI has hundreds of ENG antennas in the field today. And according to what they calculate, new filters will be needed to meet the BAS Relocation frequency requirements. According to NSI's John Leahy, the company normally turns out between 50 to 55 antennas a year. That means NSI has to consider, like the transmitter and remote control manufacturers, how they can make the filters fast enough to satisfy a 30-month window.

As Leahy puts it, "What this means is that virtually all antennas/bandpass filters will need to be customized." Can they make it happen? NSI believes it can, but not without some major changes in their plant operations.

But Leahy adds another wrinkle. Since the money for the equipment changeover is coming from the Treasury, there may need to be an accounting of the equipment being replaced. And what would the government want with it anyway? Well, they don't particularly want it, but it could be a GAO (Government Accountability Office) mechanism that attempts to keep tabs on how the money is actually be spent. Hopefully, this complication will go away. Otherwise, all manufacturers would be accountable for sending obsolete equipment to the government. Hopefully, they won't want more than a flow of electronic paperwork. It's either that or a mountain of equipment that would ultimately be an embarrassment to the GAO, and disposal would be an additional cost and another round of accounting hogwash!

Ready To Roll?
With spectrum suddenly available for other services, who knows what other players will jump in. Possibly, even the government intelligence agencies.

But the bottom line here is that when Nextel starts transmitting on Channel 1, those who think this can be another DTV transmission scenario are in for a rude surprise. Sprint Nextel will not be deterred from exercising their billion dollar rights to the spectrum.

Meanwhile, COFDM, which has proven over and over that it can deliver ENG signals from moving vans and winter storm battered city streets, will face up to its microwave challenge.

The question comes down to finding out what happens when multiple ENG COFDM-equipped vans arrive on the scene of a major news event. Will they set off a new round of interference questions, and spawn yet another FCC docket?

Meanwhile, the message from the manufacturers is an urgent plea for television GMs and Chief Engineers to recognize the big picture and act now before Sprint Nextel flexes its muscles and further complicates daily news operations.

Heads-Up For General Managers

With the DTV transition hanging over the television industry, it didn't need another big outlay of cash to satisfy another FCC docket. Fortunately, that won't happen. The money to convert the microwave ENG equipment through Relocation will be paid for by the Treasury. According to Microwave Radio, it sounds like a win-win situation. The broadcasters get money for equipment they couldn't afford anyway, and the manufacturers, like Nucomm and Microwave Radio and others are guaranteed sales.

While broadcasters were accustomed to 17 MHz bandwidth signals, BAS Relocation will close the envelope to just 12 MHz. And that, according to the manufacturers, means digital. And that translates to minimally over 1,000 ENG microwave units.

Reminiscent of the over-the-air transmitter rainbow, not all stations are ready for DTV.

For the microwave transmitter companies, it means that the 30-month window for relocation puts a special burden on their manufacturing capabilities. At Microwave Radio, the company reports that their latest CodeRunner will handle the Relocation requirements. The question is, as a moderate-sized company, can they and other manufacturers build units, and modify units fast enough to meet the 30-month window? Microwave Radio believes that it can, but not without the station GM's awareness of the Relocation project and their urgency to get the process underway now.