Hard economics cause WNVT to return to analog spectrum

The prohibitive cost of operating both an analog and digital transmitter simultaneously has caused public television station WNVT-TV, in Goldvein, Va., to shut off its analog transmitter and commit its limited resources to digital television (DTV) transmission.

Last week, Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corp.--licensee of educational station, WNVT-TV, in addition to WNVC-TV, three other PBS TV stations and one NPR radio station--filed an application with the FCC’s Media Bureau, requesting that it allow WNVT to cease analog broadcasting, surrender its NTSC license and operate as a single-channel, digital-only television broadcaster. Operating on Channel 53 in analog, the station wants to exist in the future as only WNVT-DT, Channel 30.

Dave Hurd, chief engineer at WNVT-TV, said the move would save them about $5,000 per month in electricity expenses--the cost of operating the analog system alone. The station is not worried about losing viewers because most people in the station’s northern Virginia coverage area are getting their TV via cable or satellite.

“If we were dependent 100 percent on our over-the-air viewers, maybe we wouldn’t be making this decision,” said Hurd, “but we feed both satellite and cable TV by fiber, where most of the viewers are, so broadcasting a signal to the very few that use an outdoor antenna to receive us just isn’t worth the expense.”

Another issue affecting the decision was the cost of reinforcing the transmission tower and antenna to co-locate both WNVT-TV and WNVC-TV on the same tower. Hurd said building out and maintaining a combined antenna that would accommodate both an analog and digital signal of the two stations is very expensive and that “if the [FCC] Commissioner has his way, in the next three years half of it [the analog gear] would be obsolete.”

WNVC-TV will remain in analog, Hurd said, because its digital channel assignment (57) is not in the desired “core” and he’d like to see that change. Since WNVT-DT was allotted channel 30, an in-core assignment, the company is building the digital infrastructure to operate at 160 kW ERP, its maximum allotted power with an Axcera transmitter and Dielectric antenna. The station had petitioned for more power, but interference issues with nearby stations made this impossible, according to the FCC.

Hurd said WNVT-DT will probably get on the air in digital in August, once lingering tower construction issues are resolved.

“We’re a public TV station,” he said, “where’s the money coming from? We can’t afford, nor do we need, two digital stations on the air right now. We looked at the hard economics of it and by shutting down the analog signal we’ll save a minimum of $1.8 million in construction and operating costs. That’s a lot of money that we can use for other reasons. I think, as we get closer to the 2006 deadline, we’ll see a lot more stations making the same decision we did.”

Hurd said he predicts the FCC deadline for the return of the analog spectrum will eventually be extended to 2010. In the early-to-mid nineties, WNVT-TV’s transmitter site, in Independent Hill, Va., was used for the original propagation studies to test what is now the ATSC system used by U.S. broadcasters when broadcasting a terrestrial digital signal.

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