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Repack Crosses the Finish Line

WJZ’s new candelabra tower was recently installed in Baltimore (Image credit: James Ruedlinger, ERI)

WASHINGTON—The complicated task of switching the operating frequencies of nearly 1,000 full-power television stations in the United States is complete. Almost.

Starting on April 13, 2017 (which is when spectrum-hungry wireless companies finished bidding on broad swaths of spectrum being used by broadcasters), the “repack” ended on July 13 with only a handful of holdouts. The FCC estimated the cost at approximately $2.75 billion.

“There are six stations that were granted extensions beyond the July 13 deadline established by the commission as the final date on which all repack stations needed to vacate their pre-auction channels,” said Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force. “The first such extension was to WFOX (Jacksonville, Fla.), where the commission unanimously found that circumstances beyond WFOX’s control justified a waiver of the deadline until Sept. 8, 2020.”

In the FCC order that pushed back the deadline for WFOX, the commission delegated the ability to make similar extensions to its Incentive Auction Task Force and Media Bureau.

“The Bureau subsequently issued two extensions until August 3, and three more until Sept. 8,” Kiddoo said. “Each of the six stations faced unique challenges with its construction project that required a little more time. We anticipate the issues are being resolved within the extended timeframe established by the extensions.”

Looking back at the repack project, Kiddoo was struck by the complexity, and the eventual ability for all the moving pieces to slot together.

“This was an extremely complex project with lots of challenges, but one major one was that a ‘one-date-fits-all’ plan similar to the 2009 DTV conversion simply couldn’t work here due to interference concerns,” she said. “The commission therefore had to develop a scheduling plan that assigned repack stations to particular phases that took into account not only interference linkages among stations, but also resource constraints such as engineering support, tower crew availability, equipment supply chain limitations and the like.”

UNFORESEEN SITUATIONS

Other factors considered by the FCC and broadcasters included seasonal climate limitations, issues posed by certain complex tower locations, and a desire to minimize the number of times over-the-air viewers in a particular market would be required to rescan their TVs to continue watching a transitioned station.

“The plan that was adopted by the commission in 2017 took into account all of these types of constraints and considerations,” Kiddoo said. “It also incorporated sufficient flexibility to accommodate a myriad of other unforeseen situations, not the least of which was a global pandemic, while at the same time keeping the overall transition on schedule.”

One big concern shared by the FCC and broadcasters alike is the possibility of interference after stations have been shoehorned into considerably less bandwidth.

“Everyone has been so busy trying to get the repack completed that we have not had time to look at how the interference situation has played out,” said Bill Meintel, senior partner with broadcast consulting company Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace. “I expect that will get more attention over the next year or so as the industry looks to make other changes and roll out ATSC 3.0.”

Getting the work done was a full-out task for station engineers and companies that specialize in large RF systems. One of those companies was QCommunications, an engineering project management and installation vendor in Lee’s Summit, Mo., that has specialized in assisting clients navigate the waters of FCC relocation and repack projects since 1997.

According to John Owen, chief technology offi cer for QCommunications, the repack work was definitely not as simple as “insert Tab A into Slot B.”

“Installation of complex RF systems and transmitters required field modifications of pre-designed components, resulting in many after-hour and weekend brainstorming meetings between station and field engineers, project managers, vendors and manufacturers to overcome a melee of unforeseen field issues,” Owen said. “At times, obtaining critical RF components was harrowing and compelled QComm to utilize the [cumulative] 80 years we’ve spent building industry relationships to meet the aggressive repack schedules.”

In particular, Owen cited a difficult installation for WVVA in W.Va.

“The treacherous roads of the mountain location in West Virginia required painstaking logistics for crew ingress/egress to deliver components and tower crew equipment,” he said.

Another memorable installation for him was the twin GatesAir ULXTE-150 transmitters for WPSG and KYW at a common site in the Roxbury section of Philadelphia.

JUMPED ON THE WORK

One big broadcaster that jumped on the repack work was Sinclair Broadcast Group, which had 100 stations to shift. Early on, the company reported major weather delays for the tower crews, some vendor-delayed shipping issues and major delays in a few cities with local zoning permits. However, all Sinclair’s work was completed by the deadline.

Broadcasters were reimbursed for the work, of course. However, managing the reimbursement process when government oversight is involved can be a tricky process.

“The ever-changing and highly scrutinized review and reimbursement process added extra layers to an already complicated transition that was not foreseen by many stations,” said Tony zumMallen, president of QCommunications. “We give credit to the FCC team that worked tirelessly to help our team achieve the FCC and station repack goals. Without all the players working to achieve the same results, the process could have been more arduous.”

When the repack started, wireless companies had bid on spectrum occupied by broadcasters.

This “incentive auction” generated $19.8 billion, and approximately $10 billion of that was earmarked to reimburse broadcasters that gave up their spectrum. Some broadcasters went all-in on the process and ceased broadcasting—a total of 41 stations took the money and went off the air.

The remaining 987 stations have either all been repacked or are one of the six that are expected to be complete by September 2020. The FCC stated that these six holdouts will not delay the deployment of wireless services in the 600 MHz band.

NO TIME TO RELAX

With the repack work essentially complete, some might think that manufacturers, engineers and field staff could relax in the coming months. However, there is plenty more that needs to be done: The FCC said that as many as 15% of repacked broadcasters are currently operating on interim facilities, and will need to move to permanent facilities in the coming months.

“Major antenna and tower work and transmitter installations remain to be completed and will continue to stress tower crews well into 2023,” QCommunications’ zumMallen said.

In addition, tower crews that worked overtime to change out television RF equipment will now more or less immediately be tasked to install the wireless systems (including 5G) for which the spectrum was cleared.

With nearly all the work now done on the repack, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised broadcasters, manufacturers and industry groups for working together to meet the deadline. In particular, Pai singled out tower workers as genuine heroes.

“I think it’s fair to say that no group has done more [than tower workers] on the ground and in the air to make the benefits of the broadcast incentive auction a reality,” he said.

Other industry officials also weighed in on the repack project with praise for all the participants.

“I am incredibly proud of the broadcast television industry for its herculean efforts to meet the FCC’s aggressive repacking deadlines, despite complex and extenuating circumstances,” said NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith. “NAB thanks the FCC staff for its flexibility in working with stations to facilitate transitions and grant extensions when possible. We are also grateful to Congress for allocating the additional funds needed to fully reimburse broadcasters for costs associated with these mandatory moves.”

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE?

The repack schedule was so aggressive that a possible transition to ATSC 3.0 broadcasting was almost lost in the shuffle. However, the ATSC reports that there are 10 markets in the U.S. that now have ATSC 3.0 broadcasts available and 50 more markets by the end of 2020. These include major markets such as New York, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, Miami and Chicago, with many other markets large and small on the list. The ability of stations to update their RF systems for the repack helped to prepare them for ATSC 3.0 broadcasting, although costs related to ATSC 3.0 were not included in the reimbursement.

The past 15 years have been raucous in the television industry, with the digital transition just before 2010 and multiple waves of frequency shifts in what used to be the broadcast-exclusive UHF band. Will it be smooth sailing over the next few years, with no high-impact fast-turnaround demands from government regulators? Or will they ask broadcasters to return more spectrum?

We will know in a few years.