The TV spectrum reallocation in the United States could bring challenges for FM radio stations that share tower space with TV stations being reassigned.
The transition plan will take time to unfold since the Federal Communications Commission has not set any final deadlines for new channel assignments, but observers say now is the time for FM broadcasters collocated with TV to make alternative plans if disruptions do come.
The goal of TV band repacking is to create contiguous blocks of cleared spectrum for wireless use in the upper portion of what is now the television band. Observers say hundreds of TV broadcasters potentially face changing out antennas in order to operate on new channels in a smaller post-auction television band.
Tower modifications or construction could dislocate other tower users, including radio stations with broadcasters’ FM antennas and transmission lines affected. Radio broadcasters may have to relocate antennas temporarily for TV tower antenna work or use auxiliary backups.
Industry watchers say once the auction is completed, the release of the FCC’s repacking public notice will begin a 39-month post-auction transition period in which those TV stations that must change channels will be required to do so.
Equipment manufacturer GatesAir estimates that there are 1,200 tower sites in the country that accommodate shared TV and FM operations. The company said it calculates the number of FM and translator antennas on those sites at 2,368. Approximately 1,300 of those serve full-power FM radio stations.
REVIEW YOUR CONTRACTS
The impending television channel reassignment may lead to operational disruption, said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of National Association of Tower Erectors.
“In many cases, the tower loading will change, requiring structural modifications. Meaning larger and stronger components will need to be added to make the tower stronger. There may be some FM stations that will be forced to find other broadcast facilities, if the tower cannot meet the new loading requirements through modifications alone,” Schlekeway said.
“I can assure you that tower owners would prefer any rental income to continue, but if the tower cannot pass a structural analysis without removal of equipment, concessions must be considered.”
Schlekeway said many tower agreements have provisions that protect the FM station from arbitrary disruptions, so it’s important to review a contract for clarifications.
Radio broadcasters faced similar disruptions during the analog-to-digital TV switchover, observers said, which caused sporadic shutdowns of some radio stations that shared tower space with TV. The shutdowns allowed tower crews to work in safe environments.
“The key to minimizing impact to FM broadcasters on any project is planning,” Schlekeway said. “Crews working on TV broadcast facilities must be able to access the tower and maintain an RF-safe environment during work on the tower.”
That can be accomplished by RF mapping, which can calculate RF power levels in the aperture and throughout the tower when at full and reduced power, he said.
Communications attorney David Oxenford wrote in his blog this spring that he heard substantial discussions about the TV repack at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, and some of it centered on the potential for impact on FM broadcasters.
“If tower crews are climbing around towers to replace TV antennas, and those towers also provide space for FM antennas, some FM operators may need to reduce power or even cease operations to avoid excess RF exposure to the tower crews,” Oxenford wrote. “Radio stations need to be considering these issues now to plan to minimize the disruption that will be caused.”
However, if a radio station has its antenna mounted on a tower owned by a TV station, information about plans of the TV station may be difficult to come by, according to Oxenford.
The TV station “may not be able to say much right now, given the quiet period imposed [by the FCC] on any TV station that may be participating in the auction while the auction is ongoing,” he wrote in an email to Radio World in May.
Electronics Research Inc., a manufacturer whose products include AM, FM and TV antennas, towers and combiners, is fielding questions from FM broadcasters with TV neighbors, said Bill Harland, VP of marketing.
“We are hearing from clients who are collocated with TV stations that may be repacked or are operating from nearby towers. Most of the questions we get revolve around auxiliary facilities at other locations and the impact of rigging and reinforcement activity on their operations,” Harland said.
Martin Stabbert, vice president of engineering at Cumulus Media, said proper advance communication and coordination will be key to limiting disruptions and ensuring the safety of tower climbers. “We would obviously prefer to limit shutdowns to overnight hours, if possible,” he said.
Stabbert recommended radio broadcasters check their tower lease agreements for language that protects them from service interruptions.
“I have seen disruption-of-service language in some leases, but that language can vary. One particularly well-written lease I remember actually stipulated a discount or even a rebate to the tenant if usage of the site was impaired by tower work for more than a certain number of hours per year,” Stabbert said. “The tenant installed a timer on the lock-out panel to track the number of hours their system was inhibited. Once the timer reached a certain number of hours, they were ‘in the money.’”
PLAN YOUR RESOURCES
MORE REPACK READING
Read a more detailed Q&A with attorney John Garziglia about this topic at radioworld.com/repack4.
Also, Rich Redmond, chief product office of GatesAir, wrote a Radio World commentary in April about “Preparing for TV Repack in the FM Universe.” He wrote that taking immediate action and jumpstarting plans “will significantly lessen the impact.” Read it at radioworld.com/repack.
And our sister publication TV Technology looked at implications
of the repack on tower workers and safety in a December article at
The incentive auction is a means of repurposing spectrum by encouraging licensees to relinquish spectrum usage rights in exchange for a share of proceeds from an auction of new licenses to use the space. Read an overview at an FCC resource page: www.fcc.gov/about-fcc/fcc-initiatives/incentive-auctions.
The FCC says it will reimburse TV station owners for relocation expenses before or during the two-part spectrum auction process, but no such promise has been made to radio broadcasters affected by the spectrum repack.
However, it is possible that a radio station forced off the air for a time period, or forced to relocate an antenna, may be entitled to recompense, according to John Garziglia, a communications attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP.
“Such a compensation payment would either result from provisions in the radio station’s tower lease agreement, or from payments the TV station would offer to the radio station to induce it to move,” Garziglia said.
If a radio broadcaster’s tower lease gives the radio station an ironclad right to specified space on the tower without disruption, it would be up to the TV station to make the radio station an offer to move in exchange for compensation, he said.
Garziglia warns that once TV repacking begins, available tower crews may be sparse, which will likely mean a bump in the cost of their services. Therefore, obtaining an FCC authorization now to construct and license an auxiliary antenna, if potentially needed, would be prudent.
“Now would be the time to apply for an auxiliary transmitter site or at the very least, an auxiliary antenna at a different height on the same tower far enough away from TV antennas so that work on them does not require the radio station to leave the air,” he said.
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