Despite early reports of broadcaster reluctance to move to new spectrum, it appears the Broadcast TV Repack is off and running. With the first phase deadline of the repack slightly less than nine months away, engineering firms have seen orders jump in the last month as broadcasters prepare to move off their spectrum. But it is not just the broadcasters required to vacate in phase one (Nov. 30, 2018) that are moving. Broadcasters from all of the phases are getting in gear.
“Whether it’s phase one or phase 10, the broadcasters are all trying to get in the door so they can get the work done. They are working on it,” Madison Batt, PE, SE, president/senior structural engineer, Tower Engineering Company (TEC), said. “We are working with a company that is not scheduled to move until next year, but they want to get their ducks in a row right now. They don’t want to wait till the last minute.”
Stainless, a business division of FDH Infrastructure Services, has had more broadcast orders in the last month than it has had in all of the last year. The big push for Stainless comes from working with a single company that owns several TV stations across the nation.
“The orders generally request the removal of an antenna and either connecting to an existing transmission or the deployment of a new transmission line,” said Donald Doty, Stainless business development manager. “Some TV stations may have an old analog antenna, which wasn’t removed in the conversion to digital, that can be replaced and connected to a transmission line.
Doty is not surprised that the broadcasters are getting off the dime. “It’s common knowledge that the FCC is not going to allow extensions to the TV stations,” he said. “Even if they are not ready, the FCC will make them turn off the station.”
TEC began to receive queries from clients about a year ago and then the flow picked up about six months ago.
Engineering Companies: The Lynchpin to the TV Repack
Engineering companies are critical to the success of the Broadcast TV repack. But they are a finite resource. The FCC’s phased in approach, which created 10 deadlines from Sept. 14, 2018 to July 3, 2020, allows the industry’s tower services and engineering companies to spread out their resources over that span of time.
Beyond ordering the new antenna, they must make sure the existing tower can handle the replacement antenna and then safely execute the removal of the old antenna and the deployment of a new one. This requires highly skilled workers that many times must operate at heights of up to 2,000 feet.
To keep up with demand, Stainless plans to increase its staff up to four crews. It has 23 people right now, which equals a little more than three crews. “Four crews are enough to do everything we need to do plus a little extra,” Doty said. “We need six people on a crew unless we are doing major modifications.”
The trick was being staffed up when the orders come flooding in, according to Doty. “Thanks to the foresight of the owners, Willis Stein & Partners, we have been able to add people as we have gotten busier,” he said.
His current approach contrasts to when the firm worked with 22 crews converting the broadcasters from analog to digital.
“We are not going to do that again,” he said. “It was a nightmare because we tried to be all things to all people. We will be selective in who we do work for.”
Doty said it remains difficult to find technicians for tall tower work, so the company does training itself, when it cannot hire individuals that it knows or has worked with in the past.
TEC works directly with the broadcasters and picks up work from other engineering companies, as well as working with fabricators and contractors. Seven engineers comprise TEC’s workforce doing tower analysis, design and site observation of tower structures. Batt sends two engineers for each job to climb and observe a tower that it is doing an analysis on.
“We then get the tower modeled on a computer, run the analysis for an as-is condition and for whatever new loading situation,” he said.
J. Sharpe Smith
Senior Editor, AGL Media Group
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.
January 10, 2017 —
The National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA) announced today the official launch of two industry-wide certification programs: Telecommunications Tower Technician 1 (TTT-1) and Telecommunications Tower Technician 2 (TTT-2). These programs have been developed by the NWSA[GB3] via its Telecommunications Tower Technician Task Force comprised of experts from all aspects of the communications industry—tower workers, carriers, tower owners/vertical realtors, OEM’s contractors, trainers, manufacturers and suppliers – who together represent many thousands of hours of related telecommunications and tower experience.
In developing the two programs, the NWSA teamed with the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) for its expertise in designing exams and credentialing programs in alignment with the certification industry’s most rigorous accreditation requirements.
“I am extremely pleased that NWSA met its ambitious goal of launching the TTT-1 and TTT-2 certification programs in the marketplace by 2017,” stated NWSA Board of Directors President Don Doty. “This is a tremendous milestone for the communications tower industry as NWSA certification is now available on a nationwide basis,” added Doty.
To become certified as a TTT-1 or TTT-2 NWSA certificant, candidates are required to successfully complete both a computer-based (CBT) written examination and a practical examination to demonstrate their knowledge and skills at each certification level. Upon passing these exams and meeting all other certification criteria, candidates are issued a wallet certification card that can be authenticated through the NWSA’s online credential verification database search tool[GB4] . Candidates and industry stakeholders are encouraged to visit www.nws-a.org for detailed information on the certification process, applying for CBT tests and practical examinations, credential verification and for more information on new certification programs.
Other assessment and certification programs the NWSA is considering for future development include Antenna & Line Foreman, Certified Climber, Tower (Stacking) Foreman, Structural Modifications Foreman, DAS Systems, Small Cell Systems, Broadcast Structures and Outside Plant/Fiber to the Home and Business. Further information will be posted on the NWSA website as programs are added and continue to evolve.
“Today’s exciting announcement is transformative from an industry safety and quality standpoint and is a tribute to all of the stakeholders, volunteers, sponsors and staff who contributed their time and expertise to make NWSA certification a reality,” said NWSA Board of Governors Chairman Art Pregler from AT&T.
After 66 years as a manufacturer of radio towers, Stainless, headquartered in Wales, Penn., has closed its Pine Forge, Penn., fabrication plant.
The reduced demand for tall tower fabrication has forced the company to redirect its efforts away from tall tower manufacturing, according to Gregg Fehrman, president and chief engineer, on the company website. In this economic environment where lean and mean is the new manufacturing model, under-performing assets cannot be retained indefinitely, according to the statement.
Don Doty, founder of Stainless, emphasized that the company will continue to do engineering, detailing, fab and installation, but the fabrication itself will be farmed out. Stainless will continue to offer fabrication services through qualified vendors, as well as retain key personnel from their fabrication division to monitor quality assurance and quality control through these vendors’ facilities.
This move repositions the company so it can remain a significant player in the broadcast tower industry. Since the initial announcement in mid-September, the company has since auctioned off all of the equipment, tooling and raw materials as well as the physical property itself. This direction is seen as a move for the company to retain the control and accuracy of its manufacturing quality without the overhead of in-house fabrication. It claims that its engineering and construction services divisions remain strong and healthy, and capable of continuing to provide all the services they have previously offered.
According to one industry source, Stainless was virtually the only option for stations that required towers in the 2,000+ foot range height. Such tall towers are mainly deployed in the Midwest, as well as countries where the topography is largely flat. The extreme height is needed to be able to provide adequate coverage over such sprawling landscapes. Unfortunately, much of the build-out throughout this part of the country, and many other developed countries, has been completed.
Broadcast tower manufacturers began to struggle with the conversion to digital television. Because television is a government-regulated industry, tower makers were subject to the whim of the ebbs and tides, as well as well as the politics, of the transition. For a time it was pretty much a roller-coaster ride that followed the business cycles associated with the DTV transition.
But the death knell of broadcast tower fabrication came shortly after the June 2009 transition, when the FCC proposed reassigning 40 percent of the remaining broadcast TV spectrum to wireless broadband, in anticipation of the upcoming onslaught of data that was predicted to occur as the century turned. Once that was inked, orders for tower modification and new construction began to plummet and then screeched to a halt when the FCC ended up putting a freeze on all new full-power and Class A TV station modification applications.
At that point, Stainless’ number took a 60 percent hit, almost overnight. What sounded the death knell for the fab was that, unlike the previous cycles, there was a lot up in the air. The expected data tsunami had everyone scratching their heads on how to prepare for it and that meant there was a lot of uncertainty as to what was going to happen to what spectrum, where. There was no way for Stainless to know how this would turn out because, in the DTV domain, there were no solid numbers to determine how many stations would voluntarily relinquish spectrum for the tentative 2014 incentive auction designed to free up licenses for broadband.
Ultimately, what that meant was that there was no way to forecast how many stations would require tower modifications to move to another channel assignment. That was just too much unknown information, and it didn’t make sense to absorb the costs of the fab and keep it open.
In another vein, and on the cellular site, it is estimated that 70 percent of cell sites, going forward, will be of the small cell variety. Small cells have a completely different dynamic, in terms of deployment, than macro or TV/radio towers and do not require behemoth towers. This also does not bode well for Stainless and other large-scale tower manufacturers.
Over the years, Stainless estimates that it has supplied more than 7,500 towers in 100 countries, including around half of those used for broadcasting, in the United States, since it started producing towers in 1947. The fab plant is located in an area with a 300-year history in ironworks, which started with the discovery of iron ore deposits in the mid 1700’s – ah…times they are a-changing…