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When It Comes to Support, Caveat Emptor!

Don’t wait until after you purchase to start thinking about factory support

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

The author is a semi-retired engineer who has been a chief, assistant chief, contract engineer and TV network engineer.

In an earlier letter to the editor, Michael Baldauf told of a disappointing interaction with the support department of a transmitter manufacturer.

When I worked at a TV network, we expected support from our vendors and manufacturers. Contracts didn’t always go to the low bidder; support history played a significant part in our choice of equipment. There were companies with whom we stopped doing business because of unsatisfactory support. 

But the world has evolved. In times past, businesses in the professional equipment world provided free, ongoing phone support; if the equipment was in use 24/7, support was available at all times. In the event of a fire or tower collapse, vendors would even get people out of bed to ship replacement gear. 

Today, while this may still be the case at some companies, many sell “pay for support” plans. The trend started with IT-oriented companies, often supporting corporate data centers. It spread in broadcasting to cover audio or video editing software, automation systems and such. An NPR station with which I was involved paid a considerable annual fee for support of its playout automation. 

What is “full” support?

One transmitter vendor states in its advertisement: “Full Support: You can count on us … A Support Level Agreement is also available for customized support and maintenance.” It’s not clear how much support is free (24/7?) and how much you get with your (presumably paid) SLA.

Another vendor advertises “24/7 service and support.” My experience with the company has been that its telephone service is free and forever; you may wait a bit for a return call if you call at 3 a.m., but they will call you back. 

So, is it possible that the vendor who told Michael Baldauf to “send us an email” did so because the owner hadn’t paid for an available support plan covering telephone support? Or was the vendor just too cheap to provide any support?

An equipment shopper or an engineer making recommendations should ask: What support is available for free, what’s available with a paid contract, and what is not provided? Also inquire of friends at other facilities regarding quality of support.

There is another consideration. What level of redundancy is built into your facility? 

If you have a redundant system, a backup transmitter etc., your facility may not need 24/7 support. You may have a more reliable operation and possibly save money on a support plan. 

Making an investment

Is that 3 a.m. situation an emergency only because the owner was unwilling to invest in a sufficiently robust, redundant plant? With modern remote-control equipment, you, the chief engineer, can probably avoid that 3 a.m. trip to a redundant facility by switching to a backup from home or even automatically. 

This is usually just a matter of money. Is the owner willing to spend to design and build a redundant facility with full remote/automatic control? Are you being adequately reimbursed for those overnight calls, particularly if you are on contract? How quickly are you really required to respond? 

If you have come to hate hearing your phone ring in the middle of the night, perhaps you should look to put your talents to work in a different, and perhaps better-paid, part of the electronics/IT world.

Last, if you are the designer/integrator or chief engineer and believe you have a redundant facility, double-check the design to eliminate, or at least be fully aware of, single-point failures. And check your backup equipment. Routinely run that backup transmitter on the air, not just into the dummy load, for several hours at least, not just a few minutes. Do routine under-load power tests for your generator by pulling the main switch and seeing what happens. Running the generator only with the “exerciser” unloaded is no real test. 

Don’t end up with self-inflicted wounds.

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