March 15, 2016 — In the incentive spectrum auction slated for later this year, broadcasters will give up some or all of their spectrum in the 600 MHz band for a share of the proceeds when it is auctioned off. The post-auction transition of the broadcasters off those frequencies, known as the TV repack, is inviting many questions.
Tower crews are the linchpin to the success of TV repack. But are there enough of them to complete the job on time? The industry continues to debate how long it will take broadcasters to move to new spectrum or off the air entirely. And the number of available, well-trained tower crews is a key factor in making that happen.
Steve Berry, CEO, Competitive Carriers Association, told an audience at February’s annual conference of the National Association of Tower Erectors, NATE UNITE 2016, that a tight deadline was needed by the carriers in order to begin recouping money paid for the spectrum as quickly as possible. The FCC has set the deadline at 39 months.
“Having a deadline, like the 39 months, as set by the statute, benefits both sides involved in the incentive auction. Increasing the certainty when carriers can put spectrum to use — increases its value, ultimately leading to a bigger ‘incentive’ that can be paid to the broadcasters,” Berry said.
Berry said he understood NATE’s concerns about the safety of climbers, which will be under increased pressure to meet deadlines during the transition. “To be clear, the FCC has established reasonable alternatives for unique circumstances to address safety concerns,” he said. “I for one appreciate NATE’s concerns and would never suggest an unsafe transition activity.”
The National Association of Broadcasters funded a Digital Tech Consulting study, which projects the transition would take more than the 39 months and would cost between $1.98 billion and $2.94 billion, much more than the $1.75 billion authorized by Congress. The NAB challenged the FCC’s incentive auction in the District of Columbia Circuit Court and lost.
“The two most significant bottlenecks in the process will be the small number of qualified crews for implementing tower modifications and installing antennas and transmission lines, and an anticipated shortage of antennas,” according to DTC.
The study asserted that while 30 tower crews were active during the digital TV transition, only 13 qualified crews are active today with tower companies forecasting 16 crews in the near future to do repack work.
“These companies tell us that they are working now to identify as many qualified crews as possible, but have had little success in identifying additional possible crews due to the dearth of qualified foremen and trained workers,” DTC wrote.
With 16 qualified crews, 130 antenna installations can be changed out per year, DTC estimates. If it takes four months to get the repack started, that leaves 33 months during which no more than 360 antennas would be changed out. As a result, if the repack affects between 800 and 1,200 deployments, the study said that tower and antenna installations would take between 6.5 and 9.5 years to complete.
Berry respectfully disagreed with NAB/DTC, noting that spectrum auction expert Peter Cramton had been retained by CCA to develop a methodology that would measure tunable antennas, stations that can be repacked on the same channel, stations with in-range broadband antennas and stations with antennas less 350 feet.
“Looking at these factors, and other engineering submissions —it is realistic there will be up to 41 crews available to complete the work on tall antennas within the transition timeframe,” Berry said.
T-Mobile Study Evaluates Time, Resources Needed for TV Repack
Berry also pointed to T-Mobile’s study filed with the FCC on February 17, which evaluated the time and resources required to transition television broadcast operations from their current frequencies to a new band plan.
Broadcast engineering firms — Broadcast Tower Technologies and Hammett & Edison – were engaged by T-Mobile to look at the post-auction broadcast relocation process.
“Based on an exhaustive review of television broadcast license facilities and in-depth, nationwide analysis of available resources for the major stages of repacking — the study concludes that America’s broadcast industry can transition to a more spectrum-efficient band plan within the 39-month timeframe set by the FCC and within the $1.75 billion budget established by Congress,” according to T-Mobile.
In particular, the study asserted that the deadline will be met because not all stations will need new antennas and not all towers will require modifications, an adequate supply of broadband antennas exists, and adequate numbers of towers structural engineers and RF engineers are available.
Tower Companies Eye Repack Warily
Bob Paige, senior vice president, mergers and acquisitions at Vertical Bridge, wasn’t buying into the studies, saying that he believes NAB grossly underestimated the amount of manpower available. At the same time, he told an audience at NATE UNITE 2016 that he believes there will be a bottleneck created by all of the TV repack tower activity.
“Don’t confuse lobbying with the facts, but everything can’t get through the funnel at the same time,” Paige said. “At Vertical Bridge, we are the largest private owner of tall towers in the United States and we are spending a lot of resources internally making sure we have a number of tall tower crews dedicated to our needs, because we believe there is going to be a resource shortage when it comes to tall tower crews.”
American Tower Asks FCC for TV Repack Reimbursement Clarity
Representatives of American Tower met with the FCC staff twice last Fall, regarding the logistical challenges of the broadcast repack following the incentive auction, according to an Ex Parte filing.
American Tower has 153 towers with at least one full-power/Class A TV transmitter, 73 towers multiple full power/Class A TV, 65 complex sites (candelabra, mountaintop, broadband antenna) and 328 full-power and Class A tower leases.
American Tower said that while it has begun the planning process for the TV repack, more could be done if TV stations subject to repacking knew they would be reimbursed for expenses incurred prior to the 39-month repack period, known as “pre-implementation eligible expenses.”
“For example, we can perform pre-repack work such as tower mapping and structural analysis starting now if TV stations had clarity that expenses will not be rejected simply because the work was actually performed prior to the start of the 39-month buildout,” American Tower wrote in an Ex Parte filing.