While the wireless infrastructure industry beat its numbers in Phase 1 of the broadcast TV repack, the next two months will be “very busy” to meet the Phase 2 goal, he added, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during the awards luncheon at NATE UNITE 2019, in Grapevine, Texas.
Pai expressed optimism about the wireless industry’s efforts to transition TV broadcasters from the 600 MHz band, known as the broadcast TV repack, and noted that the industry was ahead of schedule at the end of Phase 1. The broadcast repack has it challenges; however, taxing the availability of tower crews with expertise in working on “tall towers,” which shoot up 2,000 feet, and dealing with some of the harshest winter weather on record.
“We’ve heard concerns from both tower companies and broadcasters that limited tower crew availability and weather delays may make it difficult to meet deadlines in future phases,” Pai said. “I encourage tower companies to be proactive. Coordination with stations and equipment manufacturers will be key.”
As a result of the FCC’s incentive auction at 600 MHz, half of the nation’s broadcast TV stations, totaling 1,000 full-power broadcasters and 2,000 low-power and translator television stations, will be changing their transmission frequencies to clear the spectrum for wireless use. So far, 20 of the 115 stations have been moved to their new channels in Phase 2, which ends on April 12, 2019. At the conclusion of Phase 1, 143 stations were moved off their pre-auction channels, which was more than the goal of 90 stations.
The FCC is watching the wireless infrastructure industry closely to make sure that the broadcaster repack stays on schedule, offering to address transition issues to help stations in cases where it doesn’t impact other repack stations.
“Successfully completing the repack on schedule will require continued coordination between tower companies, equipment manufacturers, broadcasters and government officials,” Pai said.
Stations that face challenges in completing a channel change can apply to the FCC for a change in phase deadline or to extend a construction permit deadline. The broadcaster may also be able to operate temporarily on an interim facility or on an alternate channel or on a multi-party use channel.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep all transitioning stations on the air for their viewers throughout the transition period,” Pai said. “Working together, I’m optimistic that we can be as successful as we were in Phase 1 and stay on track to complete this work for full-power and Class A stations by July 2020.”
The effort has received support from Congress, which chipped in $2.75 billion to reimburse broadcasters for repack costs. More than $350 million in reimbursements has been approved.
NATE UNITE Speech a First for FCC Chairman
It was the first appearance at a NATE UNITE conference for Pai, but he has climbed a 131-foot tower in rural Colorado. In fact, he has visited numerous tower services operations across the nation, from Pembroke, New Hampshire, to Gulf Port, Mississippi.
“NATE and NATE members are not new to me. I have seen you on your turf. I understand the challenge in involved with what you do,” Pai said. “NATE member Green Mountain Communications’ staff [in Pembroke, New Hampshire] showed me the incredibly heavy multi-band antenna and equipment that crews have to lug up the side of towers. It is truly impressive when you think of the physical aspect of that feat.”
Pai noted that the FCC’s work on streamlining wireless deployments in advance of 5G and on the broadcaster repack at 600 MHz have a big impact on the businesses owned and operated by NATE members.
“These are two of the top priorities on the FCC’s agenda, and it’s critical that we tackle the challenges facing your companies if we hope to deliver on these priorities,” he said. “I appreciate NATE’s strong support for our efforts. I hope and expect our actions will make it easier for you to do your jobs and for more people in our county to benefit from the wireless revolution.”
Pai said the understanding of limited availability of tower crews capable of tall tower work factored into the commission’s decisions on the phased transition schedule, which allows both tower companies and equipment manufacturers to prioritize stations in early phases and to strategically allocate resources.
“As you know, these [wireless infrastructure] changes don’t just happen by somebody flipping a switch or pushing a magic button. No, they happen because the men and women in this room … go out and do hard and dangerous work. Simply put, without you, the incentive auction cannot succeed in the end,” Pai said. “The value of this complex and challenging work, performed on the tallest towers in America on a challenging time schedule, can’t be overstated. We built in flexibility to make adjustments so that safety is never compromised.”