A Plan for Orphaned Transmitters?

After the official Feb. 17, 2009 analog shutoff, are there any large scale plans to deal with the transmitters that are no longer needed?


(click thumbnail)An RCA TTU 60 transmitter from the 1960s—one of many destined for landfills or recyclers.After the official Feb. 17, 2009 analog shutoff, are there any large scale plans to deal with the transmitters that are no longer needed?

Virtually all stations are providing analog and digital services until the cutoff, and this has meant the installation of additional transmitters and antennas, transmission lines, power distribution and other equipment. While some broadcasters have added sidemount antennas or gone to dual-channel models, others were faced with towers that couldn't support additional loading and new sticks have had to be erected.

At last check, there were more than 1,750 full-power stations in operation and it's a good bet that many of these have at least one transmitter that can't be put on the air after the last analog sign-off. (In some cases there may even be more analog remainders at transmitter sites--backup transmitters, and even redundant towers and antennas.

A check of several transmitter manufacturers indicated that none really had any sort of buyback or retroactive trade-in programs.

Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology at Harris Corp., offered some figures and scenarios on the post-Feb. 17 transmitter situation.

"We have 306 television stations currently broadcasting in UHF that have elected, or have been designated, to move back to their [analog] VHF channel assignment," Adrick said. "These stations own both U and V transmitters and will need to come up with a digital VHF transmitter. It's Harris' understanding that 25 to 40 percent of these analog VHF transmitters could be repurposed for digital. Our newer Harris Platinum [analog] transmitters can be converted to digital, but this is not a simple overnight conversion."


Adrick said that some Harris customers have asked about literally "cutting their transmitters in half," to allow analog VHF transmissions to continue while the "amputated" half is converted to digital offline. The idea is to have a digital-capable transmitter waiting in reserve for the morning of Feb. 18. Later, then-idle analog sides could be refitted for digital.

"On transition night, the station engineers would just throw a patch for digital V capability," Adrick said. "Post-transition, the remaining half of the transmitter could be converted to digital and become a redundant transmitter."

While addressing the issue of what to do with the older analog VHF transmitter, Adrick admits that this fix does not address disposal of the newer UHF transmitter, which, pretransition, had been carrying the station's digital schedule.

Another group of stations operating on different interim frequency assignment will move to a permanent "in core" assignment on moving day.

"In almost every case, there will not be the issue of replacing the transmitter, but just replacing components such as the output mask filter and amplifier combiners," Adrick said. "These transmitters will live on."

Richard Schwartz, vice president of marketing and management at Axcera believes it's a fair bet that stations broadcasting DTV on an interim UHF assignment will have a disposal problem on their hands.

"I think that any U that is going back to V will have a used transmitter to deal with," Schwartz said. "There's not going to be a big market for used transmitters. We're not making any offers."

He added that some stations have purchased analog transmitters from his company with the intent of converting them to digital when the time came.

"We've converted a fair number of our units, but these were purchased with the intent of converting at a later date," Schwartz said. "Some customers purchased full-power analog and digital transmitters and will have us retrofit the analog as a backup to the digital side. With our transmitters, the analog and digital models are pretty much the same."

Schwartz said that his company would do what it could to help customers dispose of unneeded equipment.

"If they have one of our transmitters, we'll keep an eye out for someone who might be in the market for a used transmitter among our customer base," Schwartz said. "If we can match them up, we will."

Brett Jenkins, U.S. video transmission product line manager for Grass Valley, said that for any manufacturer to offer a trade-in or buyback program there has to be a demand for the older technology.

"We do not have a program in place at this point," he said. "It's certainly something that has been discussed internally. However, there has to be a market for manufacturers to offer a buyback program.

"The industry is still trying to sort out the market for these used transmitters--some customers have been nursing old transmitters that probably shouldn't be on the air anymore," Jenkins said. "A lot of these probably will be retired."

Jenkins expects that once the transition is closer there would be some shuffling of transmitters within group-owned stations, but believed that this would not be a complete answer.

"Yes, we do believe that there will be a large amount of used transmitters on the market," Jenkins said. "The question remains on how they can be repurposed."

Eddy Vanderkerken is director of sales and marketing of broadcast products at Rohde & Schwarz and says that probably isn't much of a market for retired transmitters.

"In the last few years the efficiencies have gone up very much and the footprints have gotten smaller," he said. "There's also SNMP Web control--these are the things that today's buyers want. I'm not sure who would be interested in older technology anymore."

Radio stations have no digital mandate, but many have going digital. A fair number of existing transmitters weren't suitable for passing the new signals and have had to be replaced.

Paul Jellison, regional vice president of engineering at Clear Channel Communications oversees operations at WLW and other radio stations in the Cincinnati market. Some transmitters replaced at his company's stations have proven very difficult to remove due to later building renovations. However, he is not a fan of leaving a problem for someone else to solve later, especially regarding older transmitters that may contain PCB-bearing components.

"The rules are pretty clear about PCBs--you can keep transmitters with PCB-bearing transformers or other devices as long as they are in service [and] are not leaking," Jellison said. "A transformer's oil could be 100 percent PCB, and so long as it is in good repair and in service, it's OK."

The rule changes when a piece of contaminated equipment is taken out of service.

"Our 500 kW WLW transmitter was not in service and we were stuck with a disposal problem," he said. "The rule then was that at contamination levels of 50 parts per million and above you had to remove and properly dispose of the item. We had to have the people in white suits come in."

Jellison said the problematic transformer was removed several years ago, but not without the help of a 20-ton crane, a forklift and some torch work. The cost for the physical removal amounted to nearly $10,000, probably $20,000 to $25,000 in today's money. Disposal costs were additional and not cheap either. Fortunately no building modifications were involved. The situation was different at another Clear Channel facility.

"In Lexington, Ky., some walls had been added when the infrastructure grew," Jellison said. "The transmitter couldn't be taken out through the doors it came in. New doorways had to be cut into the building."

Jellison cautions station personnel to exercise care with regard to disposal of transmitters that may contain PCBs.

"People have served hard jail time for improperly disposing of PCB contaminated equipment," Jellison said. "Get rid of this stuff now. The rules are that if [PCB-bearing] equipment is abandoned--not used anymore--it must be disposed of and not left to sit around."

Jellison flagged other liability issues with other transmitter components that could exist in a few decades or less.

"People will be used to solid-state and may not be aware of hazards associated with tube technology," he said. "Everybody now knows what to do or not to do around these transmitters--this may not be the case in 25 to 30 years."


Most broadcasters are using state-of-the-art equipment. However, some stations may be trying to nurse the last bit of life out of an older transmitter before retiring it completely in 2009. Others may have a vintage backup transmitter left over from their first sign-on. Some of these truly classic models should be preserved, but due to the physical size and transportation costs, few museums seek transmitters. There are a couple of exceptions.

One of these is the Bolack Electromechanical Museum in Farmington, N.M. Owner and curator Tommy Bolack already possess a number of large transmitters and says that he has space and will consider additional donations. He may be contacted at 505-325-4275.

Another museum potentially interested in acquiring transmitting equipment is the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio. Space there is somewhat limited, but founder and curator Steve McVoy is interested in speaking with anyone who might want to make a donation. He may be contacted at 614-771-0510 or at etf@colombus.rr.com.