As the channel repack enters its final segment—Phase 10—broadcasters are facing some unexpected headwinds in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the FCC announced that it would give those broadcasters who had not met the May 1 deadline to complete their repack in Phase 9, the opportunity to extend their project into Phase 10—the final phase—which began May 2 and is scheduled to end July 3.
As one of the most complex and time-sensitive projects ever undertaken by U.S. broadcasters, nearly 1,000 TV stations are involved in moving their channels to make way for the 600 MHz spectrum that was auctioned off several years ago, to be taken over by the wireless carriers who obtained the winning bids. But it’s not only TV stations that have been affected, it’s also impacting other tenants on the towers, including FM radio stations.
TV Technology recently sat down with Anthony Flores, owner of AFF Consulting, who has spent the large part of the last several years working with broadcasters on repack projects. Here is an edited transcript:
TV Technology: Welcome Tony, can you give us some background about yourself?
Anthony Flores: I’ve been an independent contractor since 2007, prior to that I worked for Richland Towers. I was also with AT&T as a director of site development. I’ve been in the business since 1987 doing either cellular wireless and since 1997 on, mostly broadcast.
I understand the whole process of going from concept design to on the air, it’s helped me fill niches wherever they are. I’ve also worked for tower companies as well as some TV and radio broadcasters.
TVT: How were things going with your work on the repack prior to March?
AF: Pretty busy. As the repack started to ramp up a few years ago, it was obvious to a lot of broadcasters that they didn’t have the internal resources needed for various necessary tasks. For some groups it was engineering and administrative tasks such as RF and structural engineering, planning and design, and entitlement/ permits to get their projects out of the chute. Some broadcasters needed construction management assistance. They wanted people to manage the field effort to get things done, to get the tower modifications, antennas and transmitters changed out. I’ve pretty much assisted with all of the above.
A lot of groups have been very organized and were looking down the road a lot further so they were working towards all of these tasks much earlier in the process. Some planned to install and use a broadband standby system capable of both their existing and new channel. They worked to have these in place prior to their Phased transition date. Then, they would replace their main antennas at a time that worked for that station. Some elected to go on their standby systems to maintain their current channels while they put all their new channels top-mounted or main systems in place and then cut over to those after the transition dates. They would then go back after the transition and replace their standby antennas.
There were the other groups that were a little less organized or maybe didn’t have all the funding they needed. Those groups struggled to do the best they could. Some made their transition just in time and some did not.
The push here at the end has been somewhat of a challenge just because of the nature of the repack: Not having enough resources across the board, be it transmitters, antennas, installers, tower contractors, structural engineers, etc. Those who felt it could be done as quickly as they originally thought may not have understood all of the complexities or didn't quite understand the scope of what it took to fulfill the requests.
So, given that there were already a lot of challenges, go ahead and throw in this pandemic at the last minute and that didn't help.
TVT: How much of the problem would you attribute to lack of planning as opposed to not being aware that something like this pandemic could have an impact?
AF: How can you be ready for a global pandemic? You already have a lot of headwind and you're already going uphill. Now throw on this 500 pound weight and that's all it took to make a difficult situation worse.
For example, you’re working on a building permit, things are pretty much moving along to your planned schedule. Then the pandemic hits. Due to some state or county shelter-in-place orders, some jurisdictions cut their office hours or their staff was sent to work from home. Now your planned schedule doubles or triples. What may have taken four to six weeks now can take eight to 12 weeks or longer.
That’s just on the regulatory side. On the field resource side, some vendors and contractors were concerned about employee safety. Whether on the manufacturing floor or in the field, evaluations had to be made to determine whether to keep working or suspend operations until they could understand how the virus might impact them.
That’s on the repack side of things. Then there's the rest of the broadcast business already working and operating. The broadcasters that have nothing to do with repack rely on many of those same resources to help them every day, whether it’s normal maintenance, or an emergency. Some of these broadcast resources have long-term relationships with these broadcasters and they're doing their best to squeeze them into the already difficult workload.
All of the above doesn’t even consider the weather. During the 2018-2019 winter, we had problems—we had either incredible rain or wind events that stopped construction completely or increased the work schedule by weeks. That, of course, had a domino effect on other project schedules into spring and summer.
All of those realistic real world things happen, repack or not—they happen with any major undertaking. To expect to be able to move almost 1,000 TV stations in 36 months was more optimistic than realistic. So whether it was phase 9, 8, 6 or 3, it started off with a challenge and never really got better.
Regardless, coming into phase 9, with some Herculean efforts, the dedicated vendors and contractors made it happen. I think most of the stations—at least the ones I was involved with—were successful.
TVT: Do you agree with the FCC's assessment that the repack is on schedule?
AF: That's a subjective question—”On schedule according to what?” On schedule that someone gave up that channel when they were supposed to? Perhaps that's correct. That they're hobbling by on some less than optimum antenna and have lost significant coverage in their market? I think that you’ll find a number of those cases.
And now, broadcasters that are trying to complete phase 10 or complete their transition by installing a new antenna or transmitter are finding that the resource pool has been encumbered by a pandemic. They have to ask themselves: Is it safe to go into New York or Baltimore? That becomes part of a tower contractors’ job: safety analysis, just like climbing a tower, is it safe to climb? Now, we have to ask whether it is safe for me to put six guys into a market where they might be exposed.
Some care and some, not as much. Regardless, I’m sure no one wants to get sick or bring something home to a family member or significant other,
TVT: Which has been the bigger problem during this pandemic, is it the logistics or have there been shortages of tower crews?
AF: It's a little of both. There was always a shortage of resources, that was a given from the start.
We made our way into phase 9 without a pandemic or at least that burden, but we were already scrambling to get things to happen. While the pandemic may not have stopped things, it certainly slowed things down even more because people were becoming a little more tentative—“how do I get my crews there, are there any hotels open, what's the protocol?”
And now I have to set up another level of training for my people to make sure they stay healthy and what are all the ramifications if somebody gets sick, So there was kind of a “pumping of the brakes” if you will, with all the vendors and contractors.
TVT: Are you finding out that even for those people who are planning ahead, the fact that there's no personnel at city hall anymore and that people are scattered is a problem? It can’t all be done online right?
My office is in Northern California and I always try to do as much as I can online but there are jurisdictions that just aren’t as sophisticated or set up to do that and they require somebody in person. I'm on a plane going to that market or I have a local associate that I can work with to be my arms and legs in that market.
And it still requires me to physically see somebody else, and yes, when all of the shelter-in-place orders started to occur in different places, some jurisdictions were very quick to say, “we need some time to figure this out and see if we can switch to a more remote process.”
TVT: Do you think the deadline will be extended beyond July?
AF: I don't think so. I know, on the other side, the new spectrum licensees, obviously, are very anxious to get that 600 MHz deployed. And I get that, I understand because especially now, the cellular networks are being taxed in a way that they weren't before.
The auction was a big big deal for some of these guys and they had already started to deploy the 600 MHz. They can't just turn it on, they have to wait for this guy to turn it off before they can turn it on.
Some have been very supportive, willing to help and offer more resources to assist. They want to have that spectrum as soon as possible and now especially because with the pandemic. Network use profiles have changed. Network demand has shifted from the cities and office parks to more residential areas where they have less network capabilities.
When you take an undertaking like this, no one has a crystal ball, but looking back, there may have been more optimism than the resource pool could support. I don't know where those assumptions came from, but that’s not unusual, I run into that all the time.
I think all in all, everyone’s done a remarkable job and the guys still left to cross the finish line will be close, even with Covid. There may be some delays because of Covid and perhaps, for maybe the next year or so, some projects to get things optimized.
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Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.