NYC TV Broadcasters Stay On-Air During Sandy

This week’s Hurricane Sandy impacted broadcast and telecommunications infrastructure in the northeast United States. Although power stayed on at the Empire State Building in New York City, a facility engineer I spoke with reported observing many AC power fluctuations. He added that the flywheel UPS system in use at the facility, however, was able to handle it without impacting transmitters. The Empire State Building is home to most of New York City's TV and FM radio stations.

I didn't hear of power problems at other major transmission sites, although most broadcast facilities have generators, so even if commercial power was interrupted, television viewers would not be aware of the loss.

TV broadcasters throughout the region provided audio to radio stations to relay emergency information to people without battery-operated TV receivers. MetroPCS customers who were lucky enough to have one of their new Samsung Lightray phones with the ATSC Mobile DTV tuner and built-in Dyle TV service were able to get simulcasts of the live continuous news coverage from NBC, as well as programming from Fox and ION on their cellphones with no impact on the wireless carrier's capacity.

NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith issued a statement on broadcast coverage of Hurricane Sandy saluting “the remarkable work of our radio and TV station colleagues putting themselves in harm's way to keep millions of people safe and informed on the devastation of this deadly storm.”

Smith also noted these comments from FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate: “Probably one of the things you don't really think about anymore is having a battery powered radio or a hand-cranked radio to get news from your local broadcasters… Cellphones may be congested. Radio is oftentimes the way to get those important messages about what's going on in the local community."

National Journal writer Josh Smith examined how National Disasters Become Battlegrounds in Spectrum Fight.

Referring to Smith's comment that “In times of emergency there is no more reliable source of information than that coming from local broadcasters,” Josh Smith wrote: “That’s a message that broadcasters have taken to Capitol Hill in an effort to fight back against what they see as encroachment by wireless telecommunication providers. Warning of a 'spectrum crunch' caused by growing demand for bandwidth, wireless companies have pushed for more spectrum to be reallocated from legacy industries, including broadcast radio and TV.

In the article, Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for the CTIA, responded to NAB spokesman's Dennis Wharton's assertion that “cellphone-style 'one-to-one' communication is less efficient and uses more spectrum, especially during emergencies.”

“That would be fine, if people only wanted to consume news, and not communicate with family and friends as well,” said Carpenter.

John Eggerton, writing in Multichannel News, said cable outages averaged 25 percent Tuesday morning, but had dropped to substantially less than 20 percent by Wednesday morning. Wireless outages followed a similar trend, although Eggerton pointed out that these numbers are an average and in seriously affected areas like New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area the numbers were higher.

Some AM radio stations didn't fare as well as their FM and TV counterparts. The strength of an AM signal is greatly influenced by ground conductivity, which leads broadcasters to put towers on marsh land that is prone to flooding. For example, WINS radio has towers in Lyndhurst, N.J. and when the water rose, they were unable to transmit. The problem was likely due to the rising water getting into the tuning elements at the base of the towers, or even shorting out tower base insulators. Details were not available.

Carl Marcucci on wrote WINS, WMCA New York forced off air from storm. He said WNYM (AM 970) was able to stay on the air. The Voice of America stayed on the air. “We had people sleep on couches around the building, and one used a cot, but the cots are not very comfortable,” said Terry Wing, English language branch chief. “Some folks came in early on Monday, some stayed late; a couple are still here—I think some are going on 30 hours or more.”

Stations are likely to face additional problems with generators and dwindling fuel supplies until utility power can be restored.

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.