Radio Silence in the Low Country

The two incidents resulted in 80 percent of the Dutch audience left without public and commercial radio on the FM dial
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HOOGERSMILDE, Netherlands — On Friday July 15, the highest and most important antenna tower in Holland, the Gerbrandy Tower at Lopik/IJsselstein, was shut down due to a fire. Later that same day, the Zendstation Smilde radio and television transmitter tower in the village of Hoogersmilde was hit by a fire and collapsed.

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The mast at Zenderstation Smilde collapsed during a fire in July.

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According to insiders, the two incidents resulted in 80 percent of the Dutch audience left without public and commercial radio on the FM dial — the Gerbrandy Tower is the main transmitter mast for public Radio 1, Radio 2, 3FM, and Radio 4, regional Radio M and commercial stations like BNR Nieuwsradio and Q-music.

ANTENNA SITES
Most of the antenna towers and masts in the Netherlands are owned by independent company Novec (Nederlandse Opstelpunten voor Ethercommunicatie). The company takes on management, maintenance and exploitation of antenna sites and is owned by TenneT Holding BV, which in turn has the Dutch state as a shareholder through RaboBank.

Novec has a nationwide inventory of some 320 antenna sites, the majority with a height of 40 meters (about 130 feet), and some steel constructions of 400 meters (1,300 feet) — the link with TenneT allows the installation of antenna technology on TenneT’s park of high-voltage masts and radio beam towers.

Both the steel construction Gerbrandy and the Zendstation Smilde masts are owned by Novec. The concrete building under the mast however is owned by Alticom; the land surrounding the tower is property of KPN, leading telecommunications and ICT service provider in the Netherlands.

Following the fire incidents and the Smilde shutdown, Novec put an emergency tower in Assen into operation, taking over most of the functionalities of the Smilde tower. And pending the investigation into what caused the fires in both Smilde and Lopik, Novec limited the transmission power of the latter.

On the first day of August, Novec started gathering the debris of the Smilde tower, after smaller fragments were cleared away.

Meanwhile, the Dutch public broadcaster made use of emergency towers in Hilversum, Assen, Lelystad, Hoogezand and Tsjerkgaast, ensuring the transmission of Radio 1, Radio 2, 3FM and Radio 4 in most parts of northern Netherlands. SkyRadio and Radio Veronica activated a spare transmitter a tower in Jirnsum, and BNR took an extra transmitter in Gilze on 95.4 MHz to improve reception in the southcentral part of the country.

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Cleanup is ongoing at Zendstation Smilde.

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DIFFICULT SITUATION
“The situation is difficult,” said Robert-Jan van Der Hoeven, managing director with Broadcast Partners in Terneuzen. “One transmitter tower collapsed and is no longer available for broadcast use — the second one, in Lopik is being used for transmission, with reduced output power, since July 20.”

Broadcast Partners is the leading transmitter operator in the Benelux.

The company acts as broadcast network operator for most big radio stations in the Netherlands, including public-service broadcasters Radio 1, Radio 2, 3FM, and Radio 4 and commercial stations such as Radio 538, Q-music, 100%NL, BNR and Slam FM, as well as some 15 regional and a handful of local radio stations and a developing T-DMB network for the MTV NL.

In Belgium, Broadcast Partners is the network operator for Q-music, Radio Nostalgie, JOEfm, Radio Maria and several other radio stations.

Since the antenna incidents, Van der Hoeven had to cancel staff holiday requests and, at press time in August, the company’s personnel was working round the clock to deal with the broadcast problems in the central and the northern provinces of the Netherlands.

“We had to take quite some emergency measures to resume the broadcast service there” he said. “About 90 percent of services are restored with the measures taken, but the quality of service is not at the same level as before the tower problems.” Initially, Novec, owner of almost all high and essential broadcast masts, decided to cut back the output power on the Lopik tower, pending an investigation into the fire and to exclude further damages. On July 29, Novec submitted the outlines of a plan allowing for the return to full capacity from Lopik.

The gradual power increases began on Aug. 16, and the site was expected to return to 50 percent of its original output power within 28 days. Additional grounding has been added to the site, along with a fire-suppression that constantly monitors facility temperature.

“It is a confusing situation,” said Van der Hoeven. “I gather there’s a sense of unsafety with the antenna owners.” Three weeks after the incidents, he told RW, “the cause hasn’t been identified yet. In my opinion, a drastic reduction in transmitter output power, like Novec wants, is somewhat exaggerated. It’s an act of God, leading into major problems and it is simply unacceptable that a substantial part of the country suffers from poor broadcast reception.”

Van der Hoeven continued, “We advised Novec to find know how about the safety measures on broadcast towers with other mast owners like Media Broadcast in Germany or TDF in France. Those companies are much more experienced in the broadcast tower business, and it is not a logical step to deal with safety in a different way in the Netherlands.”

SIMILAR DESIGNS

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The Lopik transmission tower was also damaged in a fire in mid-July.

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Van der Hoeven added that most antenna masts are similar throughout Europe, some of them with extra engineering features. He advocates the installation of fire-detection devices and fire-extinguisher technology on the complete masts to minimize future accidents.

“The consequences of two transmitter posts being damaged are disastrous,” said Jaap Van ’t Riet, head of Q-music NL’s technical division. “We had our main transmitters on both the Smilde and Lopik masts; the latter was even a bigger problem because the service area of this site is bigger. The installation of a 20 kW backup transmitter on a 100-meter-high (328-foot) antenna in Assen, 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) from Smilde, right after the incident was a first remedy. With the Lopik mast resuming service, we hope the consequences will be limited.”

Van ’t Riet emphasized that, with the Smilde transmitter post being shut down, Q-music’s reach is far less than before, which necessitated the use of extra antennas.

Erik Kroeze, spokesman for the Dutch public radio, announced that a number of FM frequencies in the north of the country were changed due to an expansion of the public broadcaster’s radio network.

“The new frequencies allow better reception of our Radio 1, Radio 2, 3FM and Radio 4 stations in that area, but we haven’t reached the initial level yet,” he said. “We expect that with the implementation of the emergency tower in Assen, a considerable improvement of the reception quality will be the result.”

According to Alexander Josiassen, technical and operations manager with Radio 538, the consequences were rather limited for Radio 538 and affiliated stations Radio 10 and SLAM!FM — the latter, using a 10 kW transmitter on the Hoogersmilde antenna tower, went off-air.

“We have been able to cover the area with surrounding transmitters, with only a minimal gap,” said Josiassen. “An emergency post with full-power transmission was put in place for SLAM!FM on July 29. By coincidence, Radio 538 was not hit at all by the incident — we have a transmitter in Groningen, covering the North of Holland. Our application for a transmitter on the Hoogersmilde antenna was granted some time ago, but the transmitter wasn’t relocated yet. This makes Radio 538 probably the only commercial station with a fully operational transmitter park, because Radio 10 is broadcasting on medium wave.”

Josiassen added that, due the to the Smilde accident and the reception problems with a number of competitors, Radio 538 was probably the only station serving the north of the country.

Radio 538 also has a gapfiller antenna on the Lopik site for the area around the mast itself, but Josiassen said the consequences had been minimal with the Hilversum and Rotterdam transmitters jumping in.

At press time, Kroeze told Radio World that due to ongoing problems with reception for Radio 1, the public broadcaster called in help from abroad, making use of a medium-wave transmitter at Orfordness, England, to deliver the station on 648 kHz.

Cees de Bruin, distribution manager with the Dutch public radio, confirmed in a statement that due to the restricted output power in Lopik “reception of the public stations is not yet acceptable,” but he gave no indication as to when the situation would be brought back to normal.

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