NATE: Tower Industry Continues to Evolve

Drones, FirstNet and TV repack are on the show agenda — and, as always, safety first

The National Association of Tower Erectors considers itself in a good place as it prepares for its annual conference. The nonprofit trade association, based in Watertown, S.D., serves tower erection, maintenance and service companies; it has a staff of eight who administer the day-to-day operations, and its membership is currently 770 companies. NATE believes it is poised for further growth in the wireless structure industry.

Attendees show off stylish tower wear at last year’s conference in a photo from NATE’s Flickr page.

NATE UNITE 2017, its annual conference, is scheduled for Feb. 27–March 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, with approximately 146 exhibitors and numerous safety and educational sessions.

Keynoters at the conference include FirstNet President TJ Kennedy on Feb. 28 and Marcus Luttrell, retired Navy SEAL and recipient of the Navy Cross for combat heroism, on March 1.

Radio World asked NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway for a conference preview and inquired about the major issues facing the tower industry. Schlekeway, former South Dakota state legislator, was named the group’s executive director in 2012.

Radio World: What major themes are developing in the tower industry?
Todd Schlekeway: The utilization of unmanned aerial systems or drones is certainly near the top of the list. They are going to have a major impact.

Certainly the broadcast repacking work that will commence following the FCC’s 600 MHz post-incentive auction is a hot topic. That will be a heavy lift for the industry but also a great business opportunity. We have educational sessions at our conference devoted to the consequences of the auction.

The broadcast work in our industry has diminished following the analog-to-digital TV conversion, but the TV repack could begin in earnest in late 2017. It is anticipated that repack work will last 3–5 years post-incentive auction to complete.

We also expect our industry to commence work in the near future on FirstNet, this country’s first high-speed broadband network devoted exclusively to public safety. That will become a major vertical market for our members to tap into once they begin building up that network and it is certainly something we are watching closely.

And of course the deployment of 5G will be a major initiative. We are talking to our members about ways to prepare to do some of that work, which have a lot more densification associated with that and which likely will include a combination of macro towers and micro small cell-type action.

RW: NATE’s Wireless Industry Network (or WIN) program was launched in 2016. What is its function and what can be expected in 2017?
Schlekeway: That’s one of the most significant programs that NATE has launched in our 22 years of existence. We felt for quite some time that NATE needed a more extensive grassroots network. Our industry needs “boots on the ground” at the conferences, events and meetings that are held in every region of our country. The WIN program includes a network of eight regional ambassadors and 50 state liaisons. We also have a presence in Canada and the Bahamas.

The goal of WIN is to increase our visibility and influence within the industry. This really extends the reach beyond our small staff here and our board of directors. The goal for 2017 is to host regional meetings and events that will supplement our annual conference. We have very high hopes for WIN and are excited to see continued growth in our membership as a result of the program.

RW: What are a few issues NATE is tracking on Capitol Hill?
Schlekeway: Right now the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA are in the middle of a regulatory rulemaking process on communication towers. That process is continuing. The next step is for OSHA, the U.S. Small Business Administration and Office of Management and Budget to convene a small business advocacy review panel as required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Act, or SBREFA. We are nominating some of our small business members to serve on the panel so they can provide some feedback on what would be the ramifications of a new regulatory environment on small businesses. The change in administration in Washington could impact where that all goes.

We also are working with the U.S. Department of Transportation specifically on some issues regarding hours of service provisions. We recently had a favorable interpretation from the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration confirming that since the work that our members do is providing broadband and wireless services, the commercial vehicles they drive are deemed “utility service vehicles.” This is significant, as utility service vehicles are exempt from certain hours of service restrictions and logbook requirements. We are still monitoring the implementation, but this interpretation was a major victory for our member companies.

Jason Erickson, instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College, ascends a communication tower during a recent training course.

RW: What has been the impact of commercial drones on the wireless industry and where do you hope to see it go next?
Schlekeway: Our industry is tailor-made for the utilization of unmanned aerial systems technology. NATE has really embraced unmanned aerial systems. We view them as a means to contribute to a safer work environment at tower sites. They can mitigate the number times a tech has to ascend and descend a tower in any given day. There is a lot of efficiency in using drones, including applications like aerial inspection photographs.

NATE has an unmanned aerial systems committee that is working with the FAA and FCC on many issues. We expect many of our members will have some of their people get their remote pilots license and be licensed by the FAA to pilot drones for commercial purposes. We will also have a session dedicated to drones at our conference.

RW: Safety remains a primary goal of NATE. What steps does NATE have planned for tower safety and education for men and women climbers?
Schlekeway: A new 501c-6 national assessment and certification organization called the National Wireless Safety Alliance recently launched their first safety certification programs. That is going to be a major positive for the industry and should help professionalize the industry and make for a safer work environment. Our industry has never had an ANSI accredited, third-party certification entity that is standardized, so that someone trained in Minnesota or Florida has to go through the same assessment and validation process  in order to get certified. In order to obtain NWSA certification, candidates must pass a computer-based exam and a practical, field-based skills test.

RW: Is the number of tower climbing deaths in this country going up or down?
Schlekeway: There were seven tower climbing deaths in 2016. The total number of fatalities in 2014 was four. There were 10 in 2014 and 14 in 2013.

NATE’s goal is for the industry to have zero climbing fatalities, and every safety resource and standard that we produce is designed to keep the elevated workforce safe so they can return home each and every night.

RW: Will the increased use of drones help make keep tower workers safer?
Schlekeway: Yes they will. However, drones are not a substitute for the workforce. UAS technology will never be able to replace the technical skills of rigging a tower, modifying a structuring and doing antenna and line work. They can, however, reduce the number of times those tower techs have to go up and down a tower. That is risk mitigation in and of itself.

RW: Standards-setting groups ANSI and EIA have recently tightened up standards for tower construction to provide better safety margins for extreme weather events. How are those affecting broadcast tower owners?
Schlekeway: It will affect those building new towers or modifying existing towers. The new ANSI/ASSE A10.48 Standard, “Criteria for Safety Practices with the Construction, Demolition, Modification and Maintenance of Communications Structures,” touches on weather in the pre-planning and rigging plans sections of Chapter 4. Adverse weather is also addressed in Chapter 5 of the standard detailing jobsite conditions.

Extreme weather events can have multiple meanings. EIA, for example, provides specifications for extreme weather events for towers to make them more survivable. Think hurricanes, ice loading, etc. Another consideration addresses weather events during construction or service loads that can impact how towers are constructed and to provide greater stability should bad weather occur.

RW: What do you make of the tower lighting changes via the FAA and the FCC that pertain to bird safety?
Schlekeway: I think that was important. Our industry has responded very well to what the FAA has recommended in terms of the lighting changes that reduce the impact of attracting migratory birds to the communications towers. The industry has done well in this area in recent years.

RW: Equipment manufacturer GatesAir estimates that there are 1,200 tower sites in the country that accommodate shared TV and FM operations. What could be the consequences of the TV spectrum repack for radio broadcasters who don’t own their own tower and share tower space with TV?
Schlekeway: In the case of shared radio and TV towers, the tower loading could change, requiring structural modifications. It could mean 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. 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.

IF YOU GO

Who: “Decision-makers in the broadcast and telecommunications tower erection, service and maintenance industry”

When: Feb. 27–March 2

Where: Fort Worth Convention Center, Fort Worth, Texas

How: https://natehome.com/annual-conference

How Much: Members $169, others $469 (higher after Feb. 24 and on-site). One-day and exhibits-only passes available.

RW: What technical trends might a visitor to this year’s NATE UNITE conference notice?
Schlekeway: Since our show is held during the first quarter of the year, many vendors will debut their new product lineups. There will be the latest in training, safety equipment and structural components; and lots on drones of course.

RW: Is tower technology fairly mature, or are there important changes coming still that radio broadcasters should know about?
Schlekeway: With all of the spectrum being acquired and the network densification efforts that are ongoing, radio broadcasters need to be aware of the work that is being done on structures such as light poles and utility poles as well as the Distributed Antenna Systems and other micro-deployments that are being conducted to enhance coverage and capacity. NATE members have worked on every generation of communication networks and are prepared to play an instrumental role in deploying the technologies of tomorrow.

RW: Do you expect to continue to see the trend of radio broadcasters selling off tower assets for high cash-flow multiples?
Schlekeway: I do. The anecdotal evidence I get from our members leads me to think it will. Vertical real estate is extremely valuable. There has been consolidation within the tower industry, which I expect to continue. Right now you have three publicly traded tower owners that own a huge percentage of communication structures across the United States. Those are American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA Communications; and they have all been involved in buying broadcast towers. Vertical Bridge, a privately -held company, has been in major acquisition mode the last few years as well. I don’t see those types of companies slowing down their efforts to accumulate assets.



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