2 GHz Transition Sliding Toward Quagmire

Frequency shift could cost billions


To maximize the valuable 2 GHz spectrum-used by broadcasters for services such as ENG (Electronic News Gathering)-the FCC is in the process of reallocating a portion of this spectrum to MSS (Mobile Satellite Services), 3G (third-generation) wireless cellphone, and other advanced communications services.

Experts describe this proposed 2-GHz transition as a "mess" because of the many complex logistical and financial issues involved-an especially hard pill to swallow right after the huge capital expense and technical headaches incurred in the DTV transition.

In the impending 2 GHz BAS (Broadcast Auxiliary Service) re-channelization, broadcasters are being asked to compress the amount of bandwidth they consume in the 2 GHz band from essentially seven channels of 17 MHz each down to seven channels of 12 MHz. Broadcasters now using the space from 1990 to 2110 MHz would essentially free up the slice from 1990 to 2025 MHz, or 35 MHz of the 120 MHz bandwidth, for new licensees.

But the spectrum is already congested: In many major markets, seven channels in the 2 GHz band are shared by 10 or more stations, and experts say the situation could worsen if the 2 GHz transition comes to pass.


With cost estimates reaching billions of dollars, there's the burning question of who is going to pay for it. The FCC's plan calls for prospective licensees to compensate the broadcasters for the expense of retuning or replacing tens of thousands of microwave radios and transmitters so they can operate in their new channels.

But in the almost 10 years that changes to the 2 GHz spectrum have been under consideration, many of the prospective licensees-such as ICO Teledesic-have filed for bankruptcy due to poor demand for satellite phone service, calling into question whether the transition will in fact be financially painless for broadcasters.

"Our concerns are: When is the transition going to take place? How is it going to be coordinated? And will it happen all at once, or in two phases, involving two different frequency plans, [as the FCC originally proposed]," says Dr. John B. Payne III, president of microwave equipment manufacturer Nucomm Inc. in Hackettstown, N.J.

Payne believes that the frequency plan proposed by the SBE, whereby each of seven 17 MHz channels would shrink to 12 MHz in a single step (versus a two-step process to 14.5 MHz and then to 12 MHz) would be the least disruptive.

To handle this transition, a lot of equipment has to be changed-Payne estimates between 12,000 and 15,000 radios now on ENG trucks, plus receivers, totaling as many as 16,000 pieces of equipment that must be returned to manufacturers for modification without causing disruption to news operations. To make matters worse, some of the original equipment manufacturers are out of business altogether.

Once you change a station's equipment to a different frequency, it will no longer work with the equipment that hasn't been changed. And since this equipment changeover process will take two to three years, coordinating those in one band with those in another band becomes a big problem. Not only do news crews travel into adjacent markets (say, from Tucson to Phoenix), but big operators such as CNN and ESPN cover stories all over the country. "If their equipment isn't set to the same band as others in that area, there's going to be a tremendous interference problem," Payne says.

To further complicate matters, Payne says, some stations occasionally use the 2 GHz band for their studio-to-transmitter (STL) sites and relay stations, and those pieces of equipment would also be affected.

Payne says Nucomm is building and selling digital COFDM equipment that operates in the present frequency bands but which can be re-programmed in the field by the user to meet the new frequency plan requirements. "In some cases, it's just a matter of replacing a new channel plan EPROM or selecting new menu settings on the front panel to change the frequency plan," he says. In fact, Nucomm's Newscaster VT1 ENG transmitter also has six pre-sets for calling up six different frequency plans. However, he adds, any analog equipment would have to be returned to the factory for other adjustments, such as deviation reduction and audio sub-carrier frequency changes.

"As it appears, a more rational single-phase transition directly to 12 MHz channels will be selected," says Tony Finizio, president of MRC (Microwave Radio Communications) in North Billerica, Mass. "However, at 12 MHz of bandwidth, the ability to do analog transmission is severely compromised. Although a direct move to Phase Two requires shifting to digital transmission equipment for greater bandwidth efficiency, this will make the overall transition more efficient, and less costly than a two-phase transition."

With its CodeRunner and Strata radios, MRC is designing and manufacturing equipment that not only meets today's requirements but which "will meet all the requirements of Phase Two as known today," says Finizio. "And it can be switched in the field by the operators between the current BAS and Phase Two channel plans during the transition, allowing the transition to be realized with multiple channel plans."


"Other than broadcasters' main channel, the 2 GHz spectrum is the most important piece of spectrum that a commercial TV station has, particularly if they do live news," says Kelly Williams, NAB senior director of engineering and technology policy. Williams says NAB has been educating all the newly appointed officials that have come to the FCC since the matter first arose in 1992.

Recently, the FCC decided to reallocate some of the MSS 2-GHz spectrum to 3G wireless service providers, but also stated it would look into how this change would impact the transition for broadcasters.

"That decision changed who could come into the band," says Williams. "It was no longer just MSS, it could now be Verizon, or Sprint or someone else with whom we'd now have to negotiate."

The FCC extended by one year a September 2002 deadline for completion of negotiations. "But that day is fast approaching, and not a lot has happened," Williams says.

One of the biggest issues remains compensation. "The FCC stated that when a new licensee moves incumbent users out of that spectrum, they must make them operationally whole-and that amounts to sustaining the cost of the move," says Williams. "We're working hard to ensure that the FCC does not back off of the compensation issue."


"Maybe, if the FCC hadn't mandated the DTV transition, for which many stations are still struggling to find a business plan, the cost of the 2 GHz transition might have fallen more on broadcasters," says David Ayotte, sales and marketing manager for Broadcast Microwave Services (BMS) Inc.

At BMS, the strategy is to offer a full line of completely upgradeable equipment so that when the 2 GHz transition forges ahead, the changeover will be quicker and easier for its customers.

While many factor in the cost of replacing or upgrading radios and transmitters, John Leahy, Dallas-based regional sales manager for Columbia, Md.-based N Systems Inc. (NSI), pegs the cost of upgrading antenna systems at about $3,000 per unit, not including the cost of tower crews, which will vary depending upon where the antenna is mounted.

Once the crew reaches the antenna, be it 20 feet up or 1,200, he says, it would have to be partially disassembled, have a new 2 GHz RF filter put on and be reassembled.

NSI manufactures and supports microwave antenna systems for TV news, such as the SuperQuad and Silhouette (central-receive) antenna systems and the NuPod smart antenna systems that transmit for ENG trucks. "RF is still RF, whether desirable or undesirable," Leahy adds. "The new cut-off point in the filter will help eliminate undesirable energy from the new services interfering with the ENG systems."


According to Howard Fine, the frequency coordinator for Los Angeles, there are numerous complex problems that must be addressed.

"Number one, we don't know what the FCC will say about reimbursement when they meet in September. So, until we know what money we're getting, we can't make any plans," says Fine. "Number two, we don't know who the licensees are because the way the FCC has divied up the spectrum it's very confusing. Until broadcasters know who the licensees are, they don't know with whom to negotiate." If negotiations were to commence, he added, what happens if one or more of the parties go bankrupt and can't pay as promised after broadcasters have incurred expenses?

The transition is also extremely complex logistically. "In some markets, when you move one transmitter, you'll wipe out the next channel," Fine adds. "For example, at the Arizona-Nevada border, there are seven channels [fixed links] on one antenna."

And, many regions are "daisy-chained," and can see the signals in neighboring markets. So unless they all move at the same time, there will be interference.

"Let's say we make the move in Los Angeles," Fine says. "Well, this market overlaps San Diego, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara, so those markets will have to move at the same time that L.A. does. But if Santa Barbara moves, it impacts Monterrey and Salinas, which in turn impacts San Francisco, Sacramento, and Bakersfield."

Lastly, Fine says, the scope of the transition cannot be fully appreciated because equipment databases maintained by the FCC are incomplete and don't accurately reflect how much equipment broadcasters have deployed. In Los Angeles, for example, where there are more than 10 stations airing live ENG reports, one of the larger stations has 100 transmitters and 18 receive sites on one license, Fine says.

"I recently created a spreadsheet to determine how much it would cost to move the broadcasters, and my estimate was $4.5 billion-to replace or upgrade all the antennas, receive sites, transmitters, cabling, even some studio equipment that would be affected nationwide," says Fine. "Is the money really out there in capital nowadays to pay for that? I don't think so."

Claudia Kienzle