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SignaSys Preps Stations for 2 GHz

Systems integrator trains operators to bridge the analog/digital 'knowledge gap'

SAN JOSE, CALIF: There has been much attention given to the hardware replacement side of the Broadcast Auxiliary Service 2 GHz spectrum relocation program, for which Sprint/Nextel is picking up the billion-plus dollar tab.

But there's also a training component, for which system integrator SignaSys, Inc., is taking the lead role.

After Sprint/Nextel consulted with representatives from SBE, NAB, MSTV and other industry groups, they realized the move from analog to digital microwave equipment, which was necessary to free up a portion of the 2 GHz band, was raising fear of the unknown with ENG microwave operators and other technical people at the stations.

"[The broadcasters were saying] 'if the day after we put that equipment in service we can't go out and keep doing business the way we've been doing it, then we've got a problem,'" said David P. Otey, CPBE, engineering manager for SignaHelp, the SignaSys support and training arm.

TECHNICAL UNDERSTANDING

The result is a two-pronged education and training initiative that will have SignaSys holding all-day "market" sessions for chief engineers and what Otey terms "technophiles," who are going to want not just some examples of how the equipment works, but also a technical understanding.

Following those meetings, SignaSys will schedule at least two 3-hour hands-on "station" sessions for microwave operators at each station affected by the 2 GHz relocation.

The chief engineer and technophile sessions will come first. "Part of the reason for that is that we'll spend some time with the engineers to walk them through the training that we're going to come in and give their operators," said Otey.

One reason SignaSys will be showing them the operator training is to give the chief engineers confidence their people will be prepared when the relocation "switch" is thrown in their market. The other reason he identified is "so they can go back to their stations and generate some enthusiasm about this.

"What we're trying to accomplish by our training is to see to it that all of the people who haven't already adopted this technology can benefit from the body of knowledge that has been built up by the people who adopted it early-on," said Otey.

He pointed out that the years of analog microwave experience the operators have will mean they aren't starting from zero. "What these operators already know has a lot of value, they already know how to do their jobs.

"Setting up a microwave shot in a dynamic, real-time environment for newsgathering is something that is unique to broadcasters. Of all the different industries that use microwave technology, this is the only one where you're just going out, throwing up a shot, aiming the antennas and saying 'does it work?'"

ON THE ROAD

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To help stations bridge the knowledge-gulf between analog and digital microwave operation, SignaSys will dispatch at least six instructors, each a former chief engineer with 20-plus years' experience in television broadcasting. Each instructor will travel a region of the country in a van carrying sets of new digital ENG equipment from several leading manufacturers. The training equipment, rather than being installed in the vans, will be in road cases that can be rolled into the stations.

"We'll have a transmit rack, which represents what you would have out in the field, and a receive rack, that represents what you would have back at the station," said Otey.

The transmit rack will contain microwave transmitters, a self-contained video server to supply program material to be transmitted, small, feed-horn antennas, and monitoring equipment.

The receive rack, which represents microwave equipment back at the station, will contain several receivers, remote-control systems, and monitoring equipment. Rounding out the complement will be a remotely controllable two-foot diameter steerable receive antenna.

Otey predicted that in 90-percent of the cases, the equipment in the rack will allow the operators-in-training to use the same equipment the station is purchasing through the Sprint/Nextel 2 GHz relocation plan.

The transmit and receive e-quipment will be capable of operating in both analog and digital modes.

"Operators will actually put their hands on this new equipment, operate if first in the analog mode to verify that 'yes, we already know how to do this, and let's talk about what the steps are, let's name them, let's establish what we already know,'" said Otey.

"Then we'll switch over to the digital mode and let the operators experience what's actually different about this. It looks different on the monitors when you're bringing in a shot, but how much is actually different from what you're used to doing?

"What we want to accomplish from this is to show the operators that their workflow really doesn't change that much. It's just that the way they look at what their system is doing is going to be somewhat different."

The major difference for operators of digital microwave coming from the analog world is that on an analog microwave shot, much of the liveshot's quality information is available in the picture itself, and when the signal begins to degrade, it is seen in a gradual degradation of that picture.

The picture that results from a digital signal is either there, in good quality, or not there, causing the so-called "cliff effect." Because of this, the operator must rely on test equipment to evaluate the quality of the digital signal to determine if it is approaching the point where the live-shot will fail.

[For a more complete discussion of the differences between analog and digital microwave, see "Digital ENG By the Numbers," p. 16.]

SPECTRUM MONITOR

In the hands-on training, microwave operators will get a chance to construct scenarios where the signal level is too low, or too high, or contains multipath interference, or has another signal operating in the channel.

A key to being able to evaluate the digital microwave signal is by using a spectrum monitor, which has found its way into stations for satellite ENG work but is not generally in use for analog microwave live-shots.

"We'll show them how to use the information available to them, from the spectrum monitor and the metrics from the receiver that they can see on the remote control screen, and from their own knowledge," said Otey. "They'll troubleshoot those scenarios, making changes that will get them back to a good solid operation.

"We want to remove that fear factor and get people actually excited about how much more robust the digital systems are, and how much easier their jobs will be when they're deployed."

At press time, none of the SignaSys training sessions had been scheduled. This is due to delays in getting all stations in a market to sign their Sprint/Nextel 2 GHz BAS relocation agreements, which is a necessary step before the training in a market can begin.

The benefits of the SignaSys training will spread beyond merely the stations and other entities that are part of the 2 GHz BAS microwave relocation.

"We're going to make all of our training materials freely available on our Web site, including video clips of different modules of our training seminars, and all of the printed materials," said Otey. "They're going to be freely available to the industry."