This Dielectric THV series pylon VHF antenna is inspected before shipping to San Francisco’s Sutro Tower for Repack Phase 9.
The FCC Repack schedule plan was aggressive and ends in less than a year. It appears headed for successful conclusion if the weather cooperates and hard-working tower crews can maintain their pace.
Repack work began at a crawl. The 90 stations in Phase 1 had 18 months to complete moving to their new repack channel assignments. Phase 4 completion is scheduled for 2 August 2019. It allowed 44 days for 114 stations to complete repacking and appears to be on schedule.
Right now, 'The hardest working people in show business' are the tall-tower crews on a virtual marathon to complete repack projects on time.
Next up, Phase 5 should be complete on 9/6/19, allowing 35 days for 113 stations to move after the Phase 4 repack deadline. Phase 6 allows 42 days for 113 stations to complete moving by 10/18/19. Phase 7 -10 have similarly tight deadlines up to the completion of Phase 10 on 7/3/2020.
We asked leading suppliers of necessary repack RF hardware and electronics questions about real-world repack progress as the Phase 4 completion milestone looms. Responders included Anywave
GM David Neff, Dielectric VP & GM Keith Pelletier, GatesAir North America VP Sales Joe Mack, Hitachi Comark VP Joe Turbolsk, and Rohde & Schwarz Vice President Broadcast and Amplifier Systems Manfred Reitmeier.
Q: How is your company keeping up with delivery promises?
Dielectric: “Dielectric has received 867 repack and/or displacement orders since the initiative began. Our on-time delivery rate for antennas and transmission line stands at 96 percent, which is impressive given the enormous volume of work we have had to complete. We work and communicate very closely with our end users and installers to minimize the impact in those rare situations. Often, we have found that impact is minimal to non-existent due to crew shortages. A sizeable percentage of our on-time deliveries have found their way into storage for the same reasons. Dielectric built a comprehensive strategy around repack to accelerate production and deliveries, and as a result we have often outpaced installation crews. The transmitter manufacturers we partner with have experienced the same.
Looking forward, phases four, five and six are stacked on top of each other. Based on what we see from the business side, the next few months will be very challenging when it comes to product demands. We do expect that as we move beyond Q3, that load will lighten. However, we are prepared for the impending activity.”
GatesAir: “For GatesAir, the answer is both simple and good – our preparation has paid off, and allowed us to consistently meet our delivery promises. We worked closely with our customers and partners and did a lot of analysis on our forecasts and internal metrics to be fully prepared. We were willing to ‘go long’ on components with lengthy lead times to make sure we have all the required pieces to get our transmitters 99% done, right up until testing and inserting any filters that need to be tuned. That planning has worked very well for us.
It definitely helps our success with repack deliveries that GatesAir and many of our key personnel have been through transitions of this scale at least once before, so we know how to plan for it and execute. We didn’t miss any deliveries during the analog-to-digital transition, and we don’t expect to miss any on repack either.
Of course, even with all of that planning and forecasting, a key to meeting our deliveries is that customers place their orders with long enough lead time. Every manufacturer and transmitter model has a lead time, and for our most popular models, those lead times can be a bit longer than others. There are customers out there who have not yet released their orders, and as we enter the last phases of repack, it is more important than ever that customer place their orders with enough lead time. We always do everything in our power to accommodate last-minute requests, and we’re good at it, but as we get closer and closer to the final days of repack, it gets harder and harder to do so if we don’t receive orders in a timely manner.”
R&S: "Delivery of products has been great and on time. Cooperation and dialogue with customers is helping to optimize the process. We have created a Consolidation process where customers receive all the parts for a transmitter installation in a single shipping including Mask Filter, rigid lines, transformers, load and so forth.
Delivery is actually getting better and we don’t expect any issue to stick to the FCC timeline. Possible delays have to do with the planning at times, where something is needed on site last minute, this is something we are monitoring in order to avoid incident for the timeline."
Hitachi Comark: “No major issues to report. The company is building to forecast, shipping systems to storage.”
Anywave: “We are keeping up pretty well, but have seen some delays from third party equipment suppliers. Expect that this will improve as suppliers finally get fully geared up.”
A Sikorsky Skycrane hoists a 3 bay Dielectric TDM antenna to top the American Tower in Needham MS for WGBH-TV (Rf Ch 05). The TUM antenna beneath it is for WBZ-TV, WCVB-TV, WGBX-TV, WSBK-TV, and WFXT, interim for all but WFXT.
Q: Have phase repack completion dates remained on schedule?
Dielectric: “For the most part, yes. As noted, Dielectric has been a strong performer in a challenging, high-volume environment. That 96% on-time delivery rate is impressive when considering the demands, we must keep up with as a trusted supplier. The importance of safety also cannot be understated: Installation crews have a dangerous job that will only grow more treacherous as these next three phases accelerate. I think we’d all sacrifice a completion date for life and safety. Post-Phase 6 Dielectric anticipates the transition schedule is no longer on track due to the sheer volume of antennas that need to be installed. The tower crews will not be able to keep up with the increased volume of antennas to install."
GatesAir: “For GatesAir’s portion of the repack process, yes. As a matter of fact, a good percentage of our customers are asking us for their transmitters early, and fortunately we are able to accommodate most of these requests. As we move into the final phases, we continue to work closely with our customers to ensure we meet their required dates and are fully prepared for it,” said Mack.
R&S: "There are always so many moving parts and some have had some small delays but as of now we just completed all the phase 4 on time."
Hitachi Comark is keeping up with completion dates. “If there are delays, it won't be because of transmitters.”
Anywave: “There have been a few that are behind. Likely to continue this way. There are just some circumstances that are difficult to get past in a timely manner.
Q: Any isolated problems in any specific markets?
Dielectric: “There are weather-related impacts in every market. The winter was very wet across most of the country, with particularly drenching rains in the south. We can’t specifically say that any markets faced greater challenges than others, but I would say nearly every market has felt the crunch of how much work their organizations must do in such a limited timeframe.”
R&S: "Qualified installation crews that can meet customer standard are a limited resource and this is causing trouble that might be more serious moving forward. There are always many moving parts and coordination gets more difficult when you increase the speed and volume of install. The margin of error is getting slimmer."
Hitachi Comark reports no problems as of today. The future is “To be determined. Daisy chain markets could pose problems.”
Anywave: “Nothing particular to any markets that we have been involved in so far. Hard to predict this.”
Q: Any specific type or kind of hardware on backorder?
Dielectric: “Our supply chain has been consistent and strong. Our team ensured we had the right inventory and quantities to maintain orders and shipments for antennas and RF systems. We have secondary and tertiary sources in place if primary supplies dwindle. The volume was understood due to advance homework. We have done an excellent job planning for repack and eliminating back orders.”
GatesAir: “As mentioned earlier, we did a lot of advance planning to ensure that we had all of the parts and materials we needed readily available. In the rare case where we encounter supply issues on any pieces – for example, we had a problem getting some 90-degree flanges – we have the ability to make anything that we need within our factory in Quincy, so we can overcome those challenges. But we have some of the best partners and clients in the world, so we were able to plan effectively and avoid backorders.”
R&S: Backorders are "not really market related, more phase related. Phase 4, 5 and 6 are so close to each other that the limited resource of installation crew plays a bigger role. We had some initial issue with some of our vendors but it’s long been resolved and it looks promising and under control."
Hitachi Comark reports some delays in “RF Components (filters, switches, etc.),” and anticipates “Likely the same moving forward.”
Anywave: “Antennas and RF systems have been a bit of a bottleneck. Again, expect this to improve as vendors have more time to get ramped up."
Q: Future problems and challenges?
Dielectric: “We envisioned crew shortages from the start. If you study phases zero through three, those challenges were minimized as these phases were more spread out over time. Everyone knew the repack was coming and came prepared.
Things will change at Dielectric in the coming months. Phase four alone comprises 127 antenna installations, followed by another 118 in phase five, and 116 in phase 6. Phase 4 completes on August 2nd while phase 6 finishes just 11 weeks later which means the crews will need to install 33 antennas per week to remain on schedule. Crews will have a hard time keeping up with that pace, however, they have safety on their minds and are highly qualified to perform the work. I believe the industry is as well-prepared as it can be given the deadline challenges. At this point, they can no longer make changes to help improve the phases as we are right on top of the heavy product production work.”
GatesAir: “For our piece of the puzzle, the transmitters, GatesAir again did a lot of advance preparation in terms of training our repack site survey, test and installation crews that is paying off now. We brought our internal teams and sub-contractors into our Quincy training facility for many classes, and we have the well-qualified teams we need to take care of all our customer needs.
While outside of GatesAir’s scope, I do also want to thank the crews that climb the towers. We have a great respect for the tower crews and the work that they have done, and continue to do, in the repack process.”
R&S: Crew availability "is the real challenge we are facing. Till phase 3 we had time to talk, have meeting, conversation and go to a normal pace. With phase 4 installation crews are going much faster, keeping the same quality standard, but facing challenges that all the other parties involved are properly coordinated as well (i.e. electrical work, room cleaned, etc). The future will put under even more pressure for phase 5 and 6. R&S is trying to be ahead of the curve by bringing additional resources in the market."
Hitachi Comark: “Some site readiness issues, crews are available. Phase deadlines get tighter moving forward could impact projects staying on track.”
Anywave: “The installation people have been very busy, and some have been behind as a result. I expect this to remain a problem - there just aren't that many qualified installers in the industry, and there aren't reinforcements on the way.”
Everyone agrees, the best advice to stations that haven’t finalized their repack plan is to order hardware from suppliers as soon as possible and get on a tower crew’s schedule. Not every station in the higher phases of repack has ordered yet.
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