Representatives of the California Wireless Association conduct an educational session on “Future Trends in the Wireless Industry” at NATE Unite 2014. If you work for a station that owns its tower, you probably have a go-to tower guy, the contractor you call whenever a beacon bulb needs changing or a guy wire needs tightening.
If you work for a station that leases its tower, you’ve probably got a contact at one of the big tower owners on speed dial.
And if you can’t reach either your tower guy or your tower owner for a few days in February, they’re probably all at the same place: the annual NATE Unite conference, taking place this year Feb. 23–26 near Orlando, Fla.
“This is our 20th anniversary celebration,” said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors. The association was founded March 31, 1995.
NATE expects 1,500 to 2,000 registered attendees to help celebrate with them, topping a 2014 attendance that was the second-highest in its show history. In Orlando, they’ll find a show floor with about 100 industry exhibitors, as well as an educational program with a heavy emphasis on safety.
Todd Schlekeway, Executive Director of NATE “The safety culture doesn’t change overnight,” Schlekeway says. “It has been a challenge with this buildout cycle we’re currently in to have enough qualified workers in the industry.”
The NATE Unite schedule contains several intensive training programs for tower workers, including a 10-hour OSHA course, an RF awareness course and a competent rigging/signaling course. It will also bring together members of NATE’s wireless industry task force, which is working on creating a national wireless safety training standard, in part to head off an OSHA proposal for new federal tower safety standards.
“The industry believes strongly that we can address the challenges ourselves outside of the government regulating it,” Schlekeway says.
All smiles on the exhibit floor at NATE Unite 2014 in San Diego. At the same time, NATE has been actively participating at several regulatory levels, including filing comments in the FCC’s rulemaking proposal to repack the UHF television spectrum. The group opposes what it says are arbitrary deadlines for stations to install new antennas, warning that a rushed schedule may lead to untrained workers being pressed into dangerous work atop taller towers than those with which they’re familiar.
“One thing we’re watching from a safety perspective, if there’s a shortage, you’re going to have workers migrating to [broadcast] towers that are much taller than your typical cellular tower,” Schlekeway says.
The NATE Unite conference will include an early look at FirstNet, a new government initiative to create what’s being billed as the first public safety wireless broadband network.
“We have their director of public affairs giving a session,” Schlekeway says. “That’s going to be a good opportunity for a lot of contractors out there.”
Beau Aero, far left, founder and owner of GME Supply, greets visitors to the GME Supply booth at last year’s event, along with a well-equipped colleague. NATE officials and vendors alike acknowledge that today’s industry is heavily focused on the shorter towers that serve wireless broadband and cellular customers, more so than on the taller towers that serve broadcasters.
“Broadcast is kind of a specialty product,” says Terry Zarnowsky, director of business development at tower lighting provider Unimar. “Most of our growth is in telecom and wireless,” where growing clients, such as tower owner VerticalBridge, provide a constant stream of projects that are smaller in budget but more numerous than the big-ticket, high-intensity lighting Unimar sells for tall towers.
“We’re hopeful, optimistic” about business growth in 2015, says Tim Rohn, sales manager at tower maker Rohn LLC, which exhibits at both NATE Unite and the NAB Show. While NAB draws more of the industry’s decision makers, Rohn says NATE Unite is a good opportunity to meet many of the small contractors who actually do the bulk of the industry’s tower work.
IF YOU GO
What: NATE Unite
Who: The show is billed as “the premier event of the year for the tower erection, service and maintenance industry.”
When: Feb. 23–26
Where: Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
How Much: $149 for members, $449 for non-members (until Feb. 13); one-day and exhibit-only rates available
The February timing of the NATE Unite conference is no accident; Schlekeway says it’s timed to the industry’s traditional slow season, when weather keeps many tower crews grounded.
“But as busy as we’ve been in the last couple of years,” he says, “it isn’t easy to pull crews out, even in the dead of winter, because there’s been so much demand for their services.”
NATE Unite will be back in warm weather again in February 2016, when the 21st convention is scheduled to take place in New Orleans.
Veteran broadcaster Scott Fybush is editor of NorthEast Radio Watch (www.fybush.com) and has written for Radio World since 1999.