BAS relocation provides windfall for local stations

Back in 2004, stations across the country were saddled with aging analog microwave systems for their newsgathering — which covers dozens of miles of territory and includes nine receive sites — and were looking at prohibitive equipment and manpower costs to upgrade to digital that many simply didn't have.

Then came the announcement of an agreement between the U.S. government and Sprint Nextel, whereby Sprint would pay for stations throughout the country to upgrade their equipment and move off the 2GHz spectrum broadcasters were using (and which Sprint needed to extend its wireless phone service) for ENG. Under the agreement, stations would be reimbursed to relocate their Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) spectrum from the 1990MHz-2110MHz band to the 2025MHz-2110MHz band.

The program took far longer than anyone had hoped, and was officially finished last month, according to Sprint and others involved with the relocation project. Sprint has spent $750 million in new digital ENG equipment and countless man-hours to get it done. In the process, 35MHz of spectrum was freed up for use by Sprint.

For Craig Clark, chief engineer at WGME, the CBS affiliate in Portland, ME, and many like him, the BAS Relocation Project was a welcome development. In the fall of 2007 (and coinciding with the Boston, MA, DMA), the station began the planning process and finished at the end of 2008. Without it, the station might still be fidgeting with old equipment that made live shots problematic at times. WGME now has brand-new digital microwave equipment from Vislink (formerly Microwave Radio Communications) — that took about a year to deploy once the required paperwork was filed with the FCC.

“There’s no question that the BAS program helped us get equipment we would not have today,” Clark said. WGME currently broadcasts its local programs SD (480 lines) digital. CBS is passed in HD with a widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio. “We now have a system that we know we can rely on to get good coverage every time out. Operator classes were provided via satellite, allowing WGME master control operators the opportunity see the new equipment in action and ask questions from the look of the signal on the spectrum analyzer to how the new remote control interacts with the remote tower sites. This made the migration to the new digital system very smooth. We only had a few small issues that were easily worked out. And I’ve heard similar good experiences from other station in our market as well.”

All of the stations in the market loosely worked together and actually met several times during the relocation process to compare notes on their progress and avoid signal interference.

Stations were moved to occupy bandwidths within the 2025MHz-2110MHz spectrum. WGME, which covers the southern part of Maine and northern New Hampshire, now operates on channels 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7; depending upon the specific location of the antenna tower. For each station, this means smaller channels (less bandwidth), but the new digital equipment more than compensates for this and provides reliable, crystal clear live shots.

The station had to upgrade both the transmitters inside its news vans (Vislink’s MTX5000 transmitters) and receive antennas (Proscan and Ultrascan models) at the station’s headquarters and at various tower locations throughout the station’s coverage area. WGME also uses several portable PTX-PRO transmitters and PRX-PRO receivers, both made by Vislink, which help secure a signal in areas that lack true line-of-sight. An LP Technologies spectrum analyzer was also installed at each receive site in order to monitor signal strength and quality in real time. As of the fall of 2008, all of the equipment had been installed, and Clark said it has all been running nearly perfectly ever since.

“All of the cabling and electronics had to be replace and reintegrated into our ENG operations,” Clark said, adding that the system was so large crews were hired to install the equipment around the state.

“With the new equipment, we’ve found a marked improvement in how our system operates and we’re getting live shots that we never could before,” Clark said. “Even in bad weather, because the method of transmission is much more stable. We can now do true ‘bounce’ shots that were tough to do in analog. These shots are very necessary in areas that have a lot of physical obstacles, like mountains and tall buildings.”

While several stations reported having trouble getting reimbursed for equipment in a timely manner, Clark said that Vislink handled all of the paperwork and were paid directly from the government, so WGME (and parent company Sinclair Broadcast Group) did not have to lay out a single penny. Clark also said that representatives from Sprint came to his station to verify what they had and what they needed. Sprint also checked in with them from time to time all along the process.

Clark said that, for them, the toughest part of the BAS Relocation project was orchestrating when to take down an antenna site for upgrade while keeping the station on the air. “Luckily, we never got caught without a way to cover a breaking news story, but there was a lot of planning and nail-biting involved,” he said.

The new equipment is now operated using MPEG-2 compression, but can be upgraded to H.264 MPEG-4 encoding when the station goes to high-definition broadcasting in a year or two.

“In our case, the BAS Relocation has been a change for the good,” Clark said. “It also helped migrate the industry to digital on a much faster timeline. Where stations initially were cautious about this new digital microwave technology, because it was unproven at the time, we now have a much more efficient system and Sprint has the bandwidth it needs to expand its business. I’d say this is one example where everyone involved won.”