US Repack Races To Finish Line Fireworks

987 TV stations have either completed repacking or are in progress. With three tight deadlines looming before the FCC Repack schedule concludes in 5 months, will stations, vendors and crews be able to maintain the pace?

It’s almost over. FCC Repack Phase 8 ends on March 13th 2020, Phase 9 ends on May 1st 2020 and the final Phase 10, which includes some Canadian TV stations, ends on July 3rd 2020, coincidently the day before Independence Day in the US and a special reason for 987 repacked TV broadcasters to celebrate.

The Broadcast Bridge asked four key vendors involved in the repack effort the following questions about its progress. Martyn Horspool, Product Manager TV Transmission responded for GatesAir. Joseph Turbolski, VP of Sales & Marketing responded for Hitachi-Comark. Graziano Casale, Account Manager Transmitters responded for Rohde & Schwarz, and Jay Martin VP of Sales responded for Dielectric.

Current Snapshot?

GatesAir has shipped over 400 repack transmitters. Many are high power, multiple cabinet systems, with complex combining, adding to the challenge of some installations. GatesAir has met its delivery targets by identifying repack manufacturing requirements and lining up suppliers. There were many Power Amps (PAs) involved.”

Hitachi-Comark is on target to accomplish all our FCC repack related projects.  We planned by working with our customer base to forecast and build products in advance, ensuring that we had the necessary equipment and crews in-place and ready to go.”

Rohde & Schwarz Phase 8 installations are under way. So far, we have not missed a single deadline and the most congested phases are now behind us. The R&S team put a tremendous effort in the whole value chain to make this Repack timeline possible and a big kudos goes out to our installers on the field. We have completed 73% of the transmitter orders and I would say that just a few in phase 10 are still to be ordered. Broadcasters are now looking at out-of-repack stations that might have a transmitter at the end of the life cycle requiring replacement.”

At Dielectric: “All shipments are on schedule and we are currently manufacturing for Phase 8, 9 and 10.”

The moment before the WMEA tower crew mated a new Ch 36 antenna to the tower. The station was on air with a side-mounted aux Ch 45 antenna.

The moment before the WMEA tower crew mated a new Ch 36 antenna to the tower. The station was on air with a side-mounted aux Ch 45 antenna.

Done by July 3rd 2020?

GatesAir: “Nearly all repack stations will be on the air in some fashion on their new channel by the scheduled date, many with temporary facilities, antennas and feedlines.” Most if not all stations will be done by July 3rd 2020, but not necessarily 100% complete because installers are scattered across the country. “There will be some repeat visits to convert some temporary components or component locations to permanent. Many will be moving from a temporary antenna to a permanent antenna. Over 100 stations filed STAs for lower power for a temporary or old antenna. If the antenna and/or RF combiners and filters aren’t installed when the new transmitter arrives, it is usually installed and tested into a dummy load.”

Hitachi-Comark: “That depends on your definition of ‘done’.  We feel that most stations will have transitioned to their new channels by the necessary deadlines but there are many that will have additional work left to be done that could last an additional 12 to 24 months after the repack program concludes.  This is due to the fact that many stations did whatever was necessary to meet their deadlines.  However, in some cases that entailed using temporary facilities (antenna, TX line, transmitter) and require a good amount of “clean-up” work before the projects are considered complete.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “I’m sure by that date everyone will comply to free up the spectrum and be on a new channel. Some stations will be working at a reduced power for quite some time and it has to do with a lack of qualified contractors and installers, especially on the antenna. Good news is that we are realizing how important Local TV is to the communities: stations are receiving complaints because they can’t get the signal even after the Rescan. I think it will take several additional months before all the repacked stations will be at full power as expected. The equipment has been delivered, now it needs to be completely installed.”

Dielectric: “The vast majority of stations will in fact vacate their old frequency by July 3rd however a number of stations will be operating on an STA as an interim solution."

Why are some stations behind?

GatesAir: “Some are behind due to late filing and late ordering. The major networks did a great job. Some of the smaller stations waited too long, and some orders had to be changed because they were wrong. The primary delays are weather, crews, and helicopters. A few delays were from suppliers.” Horspool reported “Some stations learned that a site survey needs to include how to get to the site pulling a loaded 53’ trailer.”

Hitachi-Comark: “With the sheer amount of work, coordination, and field resources necessary to operate in this industry, there are bound to be some delays.  There have been extensions granted to some stations to accommodate the repack program.  However, the industry as a whole should be commended for the efforts we have put forth to achieve these goals.

Rohde & Schwarz: “Something that we learned in a very clear way is that no station is like another. One format that would fit all just doesn’t work when it comes to broadcasters and TV stations. We go back to a lack of qualified installers to put the whole station at 100% on air from end to finish.”

Dielectric: "Most stations planned ahead and Dielectric worked to get systems in the queue long before the stations respective deadlines but there were exceptions. For those that did not order product in a timely manner we had a “Plan B” that included an interim antenna solution (WB or TLS-BB depending on band) and have been able to get broadcasters product in a matter of two weeks. Those that are behind are primarily due to installation resources."

Other bottlenecks? Surprises?

GatesAir: “The size, scope, reimbursement and deadlines made repack a top priority for everyone involved.”

Dielectric: “Many stations moved from traditional installations to helicopter installs due to speed of installation. Helicopter lifts require antenna modifications, which can be done in the field.”

Hitachi-Comark had no comment.

Rohde & Schwarz: “Coordination on multiple parties on a very short period of time. Installers might have been on the field with some expectations and then one component didn’t show, or it was damaged during transportation, or missing from the original plan. Sometimes the local contractor (i.e. electrician) didn’t complete the job in the expected timeline. Most of these cases are typical and normal situations that can easily be addressed when you have the luxury to wait for 24-48 hours. We didn’t have such luxury.

The installers had to literally jump from one site to another back to back including weekend and holidays and one part not going accordingly was resulting in a troublesome domino effect.” “Installers are people, great people, but like all of us they have family matters, illness and medical emergencies that were very hard to anticipate given the lack of buffer.”

Recent post-repack drone shot of the WMOR candelabra in Lakeland FL, serving Tampa and St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Dielectric.

Recent post-repack drone shot of the WMOR candelabra in Lakeland FL, serving Tampa and St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Dielectric.

Everyone adequately prepared?

GatesAir: “Everyone did their best. At GatesAir, we provided a huge level of support both on-site and off-site, well ahead of repack. Early on, we also conducted a series of Repack Summits, which outlined the requirements and complexities involved. This helped broadcasters to get a clearer insight as to what would be involved and how to plan ahead”.”

Hitachi-Comark: “The stations and group owners we worked with were adequately prepared.  Hitachi-Comark assigned a program manager to each job.  In most cases, the program managers went out to the transmitter sites and performed a detailed site survey, noting any potential issues or gotcha’s up front.  This cleared the way for our installation crews to get on site, install the systems, and get the equipment on air by the assigned deadlines.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “Overall yes. I honestly don’t think they could have done much more to be ‘more’ ready. Everyone brought their A-game to the repack, it was clear from the beginning.”

Dielectric: “A handful of stations still haven’t ordered product however for those that have, the preparation has been good. If you consider the analog to digital conversion taking over a decade and the repack taking 36 months, the preparation was pretty impressive."

All others were in house by early December for staggered delivery schedules. A few orders missed or mis-ordered a critical component.”

Bad ideas that didn't work?

GatesAir: “A few stations assumed their old antenna would be adequate on the new channel. Some didn’t test their old antenna on the new channel, resulting in high VSWRs on the new channel. Also, more than a couple of stations discovered they didn’t have enough electrical service to power the old transmitter and test the new transmitter simultaneously.”

Hitachi-Comark: “Unfortunately, we heard of some stations that relied on unreliable vendors for support and equipment in the repack project.  We have tried to assist all our customers and prospects with the best solutions to fit their needs with respect to technology, reliability, and timeliness.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “This was the first time we all faced a sort of once-in-a-lifetime event. There were original decisions that were changed and modified during the process as we learned what was working best for each case. It might have been a good decision when it was made, and it may have worked for other TV stations, but not for all.”

Dielectric: "In a few cases, assumptions were made about the existing systems performance with either the transmission line or antenna capable of the new channel of operation. Upon sweeping the system it was discovered that the existing system had poor performance and needed replacement. In a handful of cases, this is still coming up today."

New Comark Parallax U42 UHF transmitter at KPXE has 3 cabinets, each with 14 PAs, for 68kW TPO.

New Comark Parallax U42 UHF transmitter at KPXE has 3 cabinets, each with 14 PAs, for 68kW TPO.

Recent ITU ATSC 3.0 worldwide adoption affect the market?

GatesAir: “It is great news for us, but too early to tell how it will be globally accepted and affect business. ITU requires a great deal of technical detail and has built worldwide respect on its technical foundation. LG’s NEXTGEN TV commitment is big.”

Hitachi-Comark: “The recent ITU announcement for worldwide adoption will likely have a positive impact to markets outside North America and Korea in the years to come.  Some key markets are already taking a serious look at ATSC 3.0 / NEXTGEN TV.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “It’s definitely a good sign for the over-the-air TV industry. ATSC 3.0 is a legit standard and countries looking for their next standard should seriously consider give a good look at ATSC 3.0 and all it can offer. In terms of which country will adopt it, it’s still too early to say.”

Dielectric: “It’s very positive. The rest of the world is already OFDM and ATSC 3.0 offers technical advantages over the other global standards.”

Did some repack stations not build for ATSC 3.0?

GatesAir: “The government won’t reimburse for 3.0 upgrades and a few smaller market stations didn’t have funding available for an upgrade. The good thing is that all of the transmitter systems that we shipped are completely ATSC 3.0 ready and at the same RF power level. Most stations designed their RF systems to be easily upgraded to ATSC 3.0 later.”

Hitachi-Comark: “Everything we supplied during the FCC repack is ATSC 3.0 ready. Furthermore, we have our Comark Digital Services (CDS) division to help broadcasters upgrade their systems with NEXTGEN TV solutions including equipment, integration, and on-site services.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “Not a single station faced the repack without asking about ATSC 3.0 upgrade. On the physical layer, there will be minimal impact when it will be time to switch.”

Dielectric: “The majority of stations maximized for ATSC 3.0 with a non-reimbursable vertical component.”

Higher TPOs for V-Pol?

GatesAir: “Quite a few added V-Pol to H-Pol. About 80% of stations increased TPO for the V-Pol. Many others prepared to do so in a year or two.”

Hitachi-Comark: “Some customers simply replaced the pre-repack transmitters with new equipment per their original construction permit. Others chose to maximize their station’s ERP. We also had some customers specify higher TPO to compensate for the vertical polarization of an elliptical antenna. In some cases, we even pre-wired the transmitter cabinets to be able to accept future PA upgrades.”

Rohde & Schwarz: V-Pol is “what being ready for ATSC 3.0 meant for many stations. Good thing that High Efficiency Solid State modern transmitters brought savings on the power bill even when transmitter power output went up significantly. They were able to keep the OPEX under control despite a higher TPO required.”

Dielectric: “About 90% added a vertical component. Polarization ratios ranged from 80%H/20%V to full CP with the sweet spot being on the order of 70%H/30%V."

GatesAir crews are keeping repack transmitter installations ahead of FCC deadlines.

GatesAir crews are keeping repack transmitter installations ahead of FCC deadlines.

2020 Predictions?

GatesAir: “A repack for LPTV and Translators has increased interest in low power transmitters, and we’re being asked a lot more questions about ATSC 3.0. Newer transmitters are already ATSC 3.0 ready. For older systems, sometimes a modification to the existing transmitter will be possible. In 2020, we will be finishing up repack. This involves removing old transmitters, relocating new transmitters and bringing them up to full power. Some stations may want to add redundancy, which often can be accomplished with a repurposed old transmitter.”

Hitachi-Comark: “We are essentially over the hump with the FCC repack initiative, but we are on the cusp of NextGenTV market deployments.  Comark Digital Services (CDS) is one of the few groups in the industry with the necessary expertise to activate broadcasters’ NextGenTV lighthouse stations. There are several other interesting opportunities which we continue to pursue that we feel will positively impact the industry in 2020 and beyond.”

Rohde & Schwarz: “We all expect several dozens of TV stations to put the ATSC 3.0 signal on the air, and I believe we are all curious to see what it looks like. What kind of services will launch first? We should see at least a few SFN networks and that will be studied carefully because they will be a game changer. The technology is ready, and the ball will roll to the business side of the equation now.”

Dielectric: “Dielectric shipped 462 arrays in 2019 for repack. The majority of repack product will have shipped by the beginning of 2Q20, and several hundred main antennas will be going up soon. ATSC 3.0 and other non-repack replacement and upgrade issues will move to the front.”

Postscript

Only 987 stations repacked. 1019 TV stations did not. Time, technology and business needs march on.

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