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Alaska Pubcasters Proceed With HD-R Projects

Completing an IBOC conversion in Alaska can be a rugged experience — beyond seeing the occasional polar bear or a moose outside the studio.

(click thumbnail)Service on the fly: Contract Engineer Bill Prendergast, left, and APBI DOE Chuck Lakaytis had to disassemble this transmitter on the ramp at Anchorage Airport to make it fit. Photos courtesy Alaska Public Broadcasting Inc.ANCHORAGE Completing an IBOC conversion in Alaska can be a rugged experience — beyond seeing the occasional polar bear or a moose outside the studio. Such engineering work requires special attention to detail even before the first piece of new hardware is taken out of the crate.

The harsh winter environment limits when and how materials can be shipped where they are needed, and the cold weather is challenging to equipment performance.

For example, an engineer for Alaska Public Broadcasting Inc. recently performed an IBOC install at a station in Fort Yukon; the temperature was 38 degrees below zero.

“When he unrolled the power cable to hook up the transmitter, the first six inches of insulation cracked off, it was so cold,” said Chuck Lakaytis, director of engineering for APBI. Lakaytis conducted the technical work to put one of the first rural public stations on the air, KANZ(FM) in western Kansas; he came to Alaska in 1984.

Some Alaskan pubcasters don’t have a power supply utility available; those stations run generators 24/7.

In much of the rural areas of the state, a public station is the sole radio service for the community. Public stations are leading the IBOC rollout in Alaska; Clear Channel, the only other radio group converting facilities in the state according to Ibiquity Digital’s Web site, has transitioned two in Anchorage.

Coastal conversions first

Alaska Public Broadcasting has embarked on an ambitious IBOC conversion of its radio stations, upgrading the analog transmission hardware of its stations as well as installing the HD Radio gear. This is the first analog upgrade for many of these facilities in quite a while, according to those involved.

APBI, headquartered in Anchorage, provides technical and administrative support to 26 radio and four TV public stations in the state. APBI is a partnership between the Alaska Public Radio Network and the Alaska One public television cooperative. It is operated as a service bureau to provide staff support services to the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, the Alaska Rural Communications Service Council and the Alaska Satellite Interconnection Project Management Group.

Alaska Public Broadcasting Equipment ListAs of Jan. 17. All items supplied by Harris.

Harris FM/HD Transmitters:

Models ZX500 (2), ZX1000 (2), ZX2000 (1), M1HDS (2), Z4HD (2), Z6HD (1), Z8HD (2), AM/HD DAX 1R (1), DAX 5 (1), DX 10 (6)

Harris Exciters:

FM FlexStar HDx (12), AM DexStar (8)

Orban Optimod-FM 8500 Processor (12)

Omnia Omnia-5EX HD+AM Processor (9)

Shively Model 6813 FM Antenna (12)

Bird BPME Wattmeter (6)

DaySequerra M2.0 HD Radio Modulation Monitor (21)

Moseley Starlink SL9003Q 950 MHz STL (14)

Kintronic Labs Antenna Tuning Units (4)
APBI has completed seven conversions — all FMs — and the majority of the rest are underway, said David Geesin, deputy director of APBI. He hopes to have all of the conversions completed by this time next year.

“Before we’re done, we will have spent close to $3.5 million for the conversion of all 26 stations, from their old analog transmitters, to their new transmitters that do both analog and digital,” said Geesin, who’s lived in Alaska since 1960, when the Air Force transferred his father there.

To pay for its IBOC gear, APBI has cobbled together funds from three grants: $2.1 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, about $1 million from the Rasmuson Foundation, a private entity founded to help improve the quality of life in Alaska and the remainder from the Denali Commission, a federal-state partnership designed to provide utilities, infrastructure and economic support to rural Alaska.

All of the digital equipment for the 26 stations has been purchased and the majority of it is now in Alaska, said Geesin. Harris supplied the gear, standardizing on its own transmitters, Moseley STLs, Shively FM antennas and Orban processors.

Standardization by product category will help the next generation of engineers in the APBI system maintain the gear efficiently, said Geesin and Lakaytis.

Transporting the equipment from Quincy, Ill., to each public station in Alaska has been challenging. Many of the stations in the APBI system are in remote, rural areas with no retail areas nearby.

For each install, every component, piece of equipment or tool needs to be shipped to the site.

“You’re not buying heat-shrink tubing or crimp lugs in these places,” said Hal Kneller, senior manager of marketing communications and public radio initiatives for Harris Broadcast. “You have to think about every thing you need for the install and come in self-sufficient. If you’re missing a connector or an elbow or something, it isn’t like you can get it shipped overnight. It takes longer to get things there.”

Tarmac transmitter work

Sometimes the equipment is shipped ahead of the installers, rather than at the same time and on the same flight. That’s because the locations of many of the rural sites dictate how fast items can be shipped.

For example, for a batch of 14 pallets of equipment, Harris shipped the gear to Kent, Wash., south of Seattle, by plane. The pallets came to Alaska by truck, barge or prop planes. The pallets that were barged to Anchorage were then handed off to airfreight carriers.

In one of the more challenging shipping experiences, a pallet containing a DX 10 digital transmitter had to be disassembled at the airport, said Lakaytis. Span Alaska, the in-state forwarding company hired by APBI to ship the unit to the small town of McGrath, had redesigned its plane since the shipping plans were made.

In the redesign, Span Alaska raised the floor of the cargo plane by one inch. That change meant the transmitter wouldn’t fit upright in the plane; it had to ship on its side.

Lakaytis and contract engineer Bill Prendergast had to remove some parts, including the transformer, so they wouldn’t rip loose during transit. That took about a day and a half, Lakaytis said.

‘It’s been awhile’

APBI sent four engineers to Harris for IBOC install training: Lakaytis, Matt Holmes, Julianne McGuiness and Michael Vaughn. Lakaytis is based at APBI headquarters in Anchorage while McGuiness and Holmes are assigned to the southeast stations. Vaughn is chief engineer for KTNA(FM), Talkeetna.

They started installs in a group of five stations in the southeast part of the state where the weather is warmer and transportation is easier. The FM station group, called Coast Alaska, consists of KTOO, Juneau; KRBD, Ketchikan; KCAW, Sitka; KSTK, Wrangell and KFSK, Petersburg.

The other two stations that have transitioned to HD Radio are FMs KHNS in Haines and KTNA in Talkeetna.

Using engineers from APBI staff and the southeast group, each of the five stations had three engineers working on its install, plus employees from Nolan Brothers Tower, which is experienced in high steel work in Alaska, said Geesin.

Each station has had much preparation work for the IBOC install. “For a lot of the stations, it’s been awhile since anyone had been able to spend significant amounts of money on refreshing their transmission system. Inevitably, with every one of these sites we’ve had to do some work, either in preparation or at the same time we’re doing the install, to make it worth the time and money to do the HD,” said Geesin. Typical prep work would be correcting electrical and AC power issues at transmitter sites to make sure the new transmitters will have a high survivability rate.

Installs are taking anywhere from three days to as long as two weeks.

Fuel issues

APBI has about 17 engineers at the stations; half of those work for three joint radio-TV licensees: KSKA(FM/TV), Anchorage, KUAC(FM)/TV), Fairbanks and KTOO(FM)/TV) Juneau. The rest of the stations share the remaining eight or nine engineering positions, according to Geesin.

When a station goes off the air, APBI sends Lakaytis and frequently a station engineer to help the station get back on the air.

Three of the public rural stations are too far away from a community to be on the power system; those facilities burn diesel-fueled generators. At a recent price of $4.79 per gallon in McGrath, for example, Lakaytis said some of the rural stations need to budget $60,000 a year for generator fuel.

While some stations in the lower 48 find they have less coverage with FM HD-R than they do with their analog footprint, Alaska pubcasters are having the opposite experience, especially in the mountainous areas off the coast.

“So many of the stations on the coast have never broadcast in stereo because of the multipath problems,” said Lakaytis. HD-R has improved the signal of those stations to the point where they can broadcast in stereo because of the installation of new, properly designed antennas.

Indeed APBI stations are going digital for the opportunity to give a second program service to their communities. KTOO(FM) in Juneau is multicasting NPR’s eclectic “Groove Salad” format.

Asked about receiver availability, Geesin said APBI took advantage of the latest NPR receiver discount to buy two radios for each of its stations. HD-R receivers are sold in major consumer electronics chains like Circuit City and Best Buy in big cities; rural dwellers have to shop online, much as they do for many other purchases.

(Lakaytis said he asked some employees new to the state recently their impression of Alaska. At parties, one noticed, Alaskans swap catalogs.)

And lest they give the impression that IBOC installs are all work in Alaska, Geesin and Lakaytis relayed the tale of missing rubber sleeves. The necessary items were not shipped to the site for one facility so the engineering tem improvised. They convinced a shop to sell them one leg of a wetsuit. McGuinness cut the patterns and voilà, rubber sleeves for the install.