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List of TV Station Repacking Concerns/Costs Continues to Grow

Doug Lung

Last week, I reported on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking-filed comments regarding the FCC's Public Notice requesting comment on its “Catalog of Eligible Expenses and Other Issues Related to the Reimbursement of Broadcaster Channel Reassignment Costs,” mentioning caution expressed by National Public Radio in connection with the likelihood that public FM radio stations and other tower users would incur significant costs if they have to move antennas located on towers shared with TV stations as fallout from the post-incentive auction repacking effort. Other groups have joined NPR in flagging repacking costs that the FCC apparently overlooked.

Two of those commenters--Sennheiser Electronic Corp. and CP Communications--pointed to the costs wireless microphone users would encounter in moving out of the 600 MHz spectrum that would be auctioned to wireless carriers.

CP Communications urged “the Commission to adopt procedures that will secure reimbursement for wireless microphone users who will be forced, for the second time in only a few years, to incur relocation expenses, in the form of replacement costs for existing 600 MHz band wireless microphones, as a result of the proposed ‘incentive auctions,’ noting that in the last auction the FCC required auction winners to fund relocation expenses of incumbents that were forced to relocate “for the sole benefit of the auction winners.”

Sennheiser commented that “The proposal to allow unlicensed operation in the 600 MHz guard bands will not make up for the much larger amount of spectrum to be lost. Moreover, the guard bands are likely to be crowded with multiple applications and to have power limits inconsistent with many uses of wireless microphones.”

Sennheiser also explained that wireless mic systems are essential for professional users and are also expensive, ranging in price from around $6,000 for systems for the most demanding professional applications (national TV shows, Broadway shows, Hollywood film production) to around $1,000 for a system for semi-professional applications such as churches, schools, amateur theater, amateur musicians and community facilities. It noted that some productions might use 100 or more units, with the total investment by a single user running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sennheiser outlined a mechanism for reimbursing wireless microphone users for the cost of replacing wireless microphones systems that become unusable after the repacking, adding, “Inflicting on wireless microphone users the trouble and expense of acquiring new equipment, for the second time in just a few years, is simply unfair. The Commission should put that burden where it belongs: on the auction winners that will gain revenues from the cleared spectrum.”

The Comments of the Association of Public Television Stations IAPTS), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) echoed the comments of NPR in noting that public TV stations that do not have to change channels, but are located on towers with TV stations that do could face expenses in moving their antennas or erecting a temporary antenna on another tower.

”Some television station licensees’ equipment is located on towers that are owned by third parties that are not regulated by the Commission,” the comment stated. “There may be little or no incentive for these third parties to make the upgrades necessary for a station licensee to complete its channel relocation. In such circumstances, the television station licensee may need to incur costs associated with legal or other professional services to enforce its contractual rights against the third-party tower owner or take other steps to complete its relocation. In addition, because some sites will not support additional towers, some stations may need to purchase or lease new land for their facilities and, as a result, will require additional professional services to seek changes to local zoning and similar land-use laws.”

American Tower Company (ATC) offered comments on “soft” and “hard” costs related to tower work and suggested the FCC consider including reimbursement of “pre-implementation eligible expenses.”

“Soft” costs include items such as baseline tower structural analyses, structural rigging plans, zoning and permit application, a mechanical infrastructure load study (HVAC, electrical, building loads, etc.) and RF engineering studies on the use of existing equipment and antenna designs. “Hard” costs for a station that needs to be repacked could include new tower construction or major tower modifications, building and mechanical upgrades and broadband antenna installation.

ATC pointed out the FCC Catalog addresses new towers between 1,000 and 1,500 feet and between 1,500 and 2,000 feet (without elevator), but omits those towers between 100 and 499 feet and also those in the 500 to 999 foot category which are common in the west and in other mountainous areas of the United States.

With regards to new towers (where required), ATC noted that with towers between 1,500 and 2,000 feet the installation of elevators is “good business practice” as they are a necessity to safely transport crews and some materials to the top of these structures in connection with repair work involving lighting systems, antennas and the tower itself.

ATC further noted that “Although the capital and operating expense of elevators are not insignificant, users recognize their value for maintenance and repairs.” ATC (which recently took over the John Hancock Building rooftop in Chicago) added that the Catalog of Eligible Expenses should include major broadcast rooftops such as those of the Empire State Building, Willis Tower, John Hancock Building, and others, as well as limited-access sites that can only be reached by helicopter.

ATC joined other commenters in saying the FCC should consider the costs incurred by broadcasters that are not subject to repacking, but that are affected by those who are repacked, listing examples such as changes to a shared master antenna system and replacement of an antenna that's part of a stacked configuration.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) pointed out that the proposed Catalog does not adequately address back-up facilities and does not acknowledge the fact that new RF exposure studies will be necessary where the RF environment at a tower site changes.

The NAB asserted that “expenses for interim facilities are Prima Facie reasonable and should be eligible for reimbursement.” The organization further stated that: “There is no one-size-fits-all cost scheduling. And, it may not be assumed that interim equipment can be incorporated into permanent facilities. As the DTV transition showed, interim equipment is almost always smaller in scale and capacity than permanent equipment; in some cases, it may not be feasible to transition interim equipment to permanent use.”

The NAB expressed concerns about the cost of required tower modification or replacement, by stating that: “The fact is numerous towers--both older and newer--will require some degree of structural modification to accommodate the many changes necessitated by repacking. That estimate is borne out by stations’ experiences in the DTV transition,” explaining that some existing towers might not be able to accommodate “new post-repacking antennas without reinforcement due to a basic fact of broadcast engineering: lower-frequency antennas generally are larger and weigh more than the higher channel antennas they will replace and, as such, add additional weight to, and create a higher wind load for, the support structure.” Significant modifications to, or replacement of, a tower is no small matter and the NAB expects the tower modifications required for repacking will likely be more complicated and time-consuming than the installation of new antennas themselves. It also noted that stations faced with such issues could also have to deal with local zoning and inspections, which could take extra time and lead to more and perhaps unanticipated delays, all of which will cost money.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) provided details on expenses MVPDs would face due to the repacking, noting that the Catalog neglected to include costs cable operators may incur in transporting a TV station's signal to the headend. The organization flagged cases in which a station, due to transmitter relocation mandated by repacking isn’t able to deliver a good signal to the cable headend, resulting in operators having to incur costs related to fiber, microwave, or satellite signal delivery. The NCTA stated that such new expenses should be eligible for reimbursement.

I've only covered a few of the responses to the FCC's Public Notice requesting comments on its “Catalog of Eligible Expenses and Other Issues Related to the Reimbursement of Broadcaster Channel Reassignment Costs” You can find all of the comments on the Electronic Comment Filing System's Proceeding Number 12-268 Search for Filings. Look for comments received on or just before Nov. 4, the deadline for submitting comments in this Public Notice.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.