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Repack Faces Tower Crew Shortage

“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

This story first appeared in Radio World’s sister publication, TV Technology.

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—Recalling the frantic period of activity to get antenna systems in place leading up to the June 2009 deadline for the U.S. DTV switchover, could it be “déjà vu all over again” when the 2016 incentive spectrum auction dust settles?

A multitude of qualified tall tower workers will be key to accomplishing the necessary post auction TV station “repack.”

Given the number of stations likely to be impacted by an anticipated channel repack, the National Association of Broadcasters commissioned Digital Tech Consulting to examine the matter. Early last month, the Dallas-based research firm released its findings in a 60-page document (“Broadcast Spectrum Repacking Timeline, Resource and Cost Analysis Study”) which examined several industry sectors critical in moving the repack forward. One of these was tower workers.

The availability of qualified tower workers has to be a major concern, for no matter how much channel-change hardware (transmitters, antennas, RF components and tower structural modification members) can be delivered, without sufficient installers it will be just so much dead weight languishing on pallets and in packing boxes.

It all seems to boil down to: “Are there enough tall-tower workers to handle the anticipated changes within the three years the FCC has allotted?”

Given the many variables, this is not an easily answered question. No one really knows how many broadcasters will sell out, will remain on the same channel, or will need a new antenna (and in some cases, transmitting facility relocation). The study suggests that 800–1,200 stations will require fairly extensive changes involving new antennas and replacement of associated RF components. It assumes that there may be 16 tall tower crews available when the channel swapping begins, and given this number (and the time required for a typical job), finds that no more than 130 antenna/tower retrofits could be accomplished in one year. It concludes that the repack clock may tick out with perhaps only 360 antenna jobs completed—not even half of the low end number anticipated.

Several individuals and organizations likely to be involved in repack activities were contacted for their take on the situation. Tom Silliman, president and CEO at antenna manufacturer ERI (and a tower rigger himself), estimates that the number of qualified crews is about the same as it was prior to the DTV transition.

Tom Silliman

“I’d say that there are around 15 qualified crews,” said Silliman. “If a station gets repacked they’re probably going to need an auxiliary antenna and reinforcing for the tower, and that takes time; however, the real problem is that people aren’t going to start ordering antennas until next summer and it will be a year before things start going out into the field. Immediately you’ve lost one of the three years due to the turnaround. I told the FCC this myself: ‘You’re going to need at least five years.’

“Another factor is that the FCC has crippled the TV transmission supply side. There are fewer antenna manufacturing companies than there were a few years ago because of the FCC television ‘freeze.’ We dropped literally half of our capacity. We didn’t lose any of our capability; we just lost a lot of our depth. Where we needed technology we’ve kept people; but where we could afford to let people go, we did.”

Keith L. Pelletier, vice president and general manager of antenna manufacturer Dielectric is also concerned about industry readiness.

“If you look at the players that went through the DTV build-out, the range of preparedness varies,” said Pelletier. “Dielectric is preparing for the repack, but the proposed timeline is going to be a real challenge. We’re being aggressive with the steps we can take to be ready. You need to be aware too that there are a limited number of qualified structural engineers and tower crews. It is going to be a problem, especially considering weather, [in] getting the repack done in the extremely short timeframe while maintaining safety standards.”

Safety issues are on the radar also at a major tower trade association, the National Association of Tower Erectors.

Placing a multi-ton TV antenna atop a 1,000- foot tower is markedly different than installing panel-type cell site antennas.

“The timeline is a concern to us, especially the 36-month window,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE’s executive director. “In our industry after the digital conversion there hasn’t been much work from a contractor’s perspective in that space. The workforce migrated over to the wireless and cell tower side, and all the new workers in the last several years are familiar with [only] that type of work. You start ramping up broadcast again and there could definitely be a shortage of contractors qualified to do work, and broadcast towers are a whole different animal than cell towers. We’re concerned about safety. Given the nature of the work and [lack of] familiarity with working on broadcast structures… and the timeline, [there is] a concern from a safety perspective and we’ve sent correspondence to the FCC that said as much. We’re going to be watching things very closely.”

Joe Burdette, vice president and co-owner of U.S. Tower Services in Frederick, Md., also believes that there could be manpower shortages and safety issues, and notes that the situation is not the same as when broadcasters were preparing for the DTV changeover.

“Qualified crew availability is much worse,” said Burdette. “When the first big change came about there were plenty of companies that did this sort of work. That’s not the situation now. Most of the work going on is in connection with cell sites, and those crews aren’t necessarily qualified to do tall tower work.”

Even if a much larger workforce could be readied immediately, there are other factors that could slow the overall repack program. Weather can be a big player with windy conditions halting a job and low temperatures greatly impeding progress.

“You can work through the winter,” said Silliman, reflecting on a job he did in Chicago. “But it’s painful and you’re not nearly as efficient.”

Another slowdown may come from a pending industry requirement. “There’s a new TIA [Telecommunications Industry Association] code that’s probably going to come out within the next year that’s going to make things even tougher for tall tower jobs,” said Burdette. “There’re going to be changes in things like wind loading, metal fatigue and other areas. Even if you install a smaller antenna, you must follow the latest code.”

Dielectric’s Pelletier also flagged the interrelationship between some television markets as a potential retarding factor.

“The whole eastern seaboard is going to be problematic,” he said. “You’ve got so many large markets in a small geographical area—Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, all the way down the coast—that a change in Boston may trigger changes all the way down to Charlotte, N.C.”

Given the “Mission Impossible” nature of the pending repack, is there anything that broadcasters can do now to speed up matters when the flag drops?

“Do some homework,” said Pelletier. “Get a VSWR sweep of your system and determine what is band-limited and what is not, and figure out what channels will work with the transmission line length you have now. It would be good to speak with your RF system and antenna manufacturer to get a high-level understanding of system capabilities and what they may be able to do to help you with a frequency change.

“In some cases the old analog antenna is still on the tower,” Pelletier continued. “This could come down in advance to make way for a new antenna. The more things you can do proactively now—structural studies, transmission line inspection and sweeps—the better.”

ERI’s Silliman also offered suggestions.

“If a station really wants to get ahead of the game and they’re worried that they’re going to go down in frequency they ought to have someone look at the tower—have it analyzed in terms of capacity and possibly do some reinforcement work.”

Asked if ERI will establish a “waiting list” for prioritizing repack work, Silliman was quick to answer.

“It’s strictly going to be first-come, first-served.”