This article originally was published by AllAccess.com on November 7, 2017. Click here for more at All Access.
Tower issues are coming to the forefront for nearly every communications service, and FM radio is certainly not left out. FM radio is implicated primarily because of the TV repack; a consequence of the FCC's television incentive reverse auction.
While many radio licensees are well aware of the repack's impact on FM radio, just as many seem to have given little thought to the problems they themselves may face. FM radio repack issues were addressed at the 2017 NAB Radio show by Dave Siegler from Cox Media and Jim Stenberg from American Tower. They led an insightful session and delivered a strong wake-up call. That session validated my prediction with specifics worthy of notice by every radio broadcaster.
The most important message from that session: Get an offsite AUX now!
The TV repack tower problem focuses on FM stations that share a tower with a television facility. To complete the repack, many television stations will be required to move to a different location on the same tower or to a different tower or replace an existing antenna with another of lower frequency. In many cases, this will require a co-located FM station to move or be off the air for an extended time period.
Even if a move or extended off-air time period is not required, a collocated station will, at times, be required to power down or cease transmission altogether to provide for the RF safety of the tower workers. Assuming a station will not want to leave its audience hanging during reduced power or dark periods, it is imperative to have an adequate auxiliary site to provide continuity of service. For radio operators, that means that you must know your tower! As Dave Siegler reminded us, know your tower means knowing whether there are TV antennas on it and whether they are to be repacked! It also means making sure there is a recent RF exposure study of it.
You can find out more about the repacked channel assignments and the effect on a particular channel in your area at the new NAB website: www.rabbitears.info/static.php?name=repack_tools . As of March of this year, there were approximately 2,100 U.S. licensed television stations, of which 957 -- nearly one-half -- must be repacked. According to FCC and Antenna Structure Registration System Data, 1,153 towers in the U.S. have co-located FM and TV stations and some 2,368 FM radio stations and translators may be impacted by the repack. American Tower's Jim Stenberg reported that very few of those FM stations have auxiliaries on different towers. FM translators are not given the option by the FCC to have an auxiliary site.
It bears emphasis that repacking these TV stations will have significant effects. As reported above, many will need to switch out existing antennas for heavier and larger ones, and many will also need transmission line changes. To accommodate this, it is expected that a significant number of towers will require structural improvements that will further prolong the construction time period. Compounding the problem, tower structural standards have changed. When structural modifications are necessary, the tower will likely become subject to newer and more stringent standards than when first built. This can complicate and prolong the time period required for adjustments to reposition tower tenants and protect tower workers, consequently extending the time of reduced power or silent status of FM stations. Abandoned antennas and feed lines will also need to be removed in order to increase tower capacity. All of this will be even more complex and time consuming on towers that are home to multiple antenna moves.
So what's a prudent FM licensee to do? Required to undergo these "inconveniences" to accommodate the repack, how will a station be reimbursed and compensated for the cost and inconvenience of physically moving its own antenna or for the loss of revenue occasioned by reduced power or suspended operation? Addressing this problem, the Commission stated that it will consider claims from a station that makes changes required to accommodate the repack of another station only to the extent required by a contractual obligation entered into on or before June 2, 2014. Accordingly, once it is determined that an FM station will be impacted by the repack, it is critical to examine its tower lease to determine whether reimbursement is required for changes required to accommodate changes of a tower co-tenant. If such a contractual indemnification cannot be found, as of this writing the station is not eligible for FCC reimbursement.
Understanding this situation and oversight, several members of Congress have introduced legislation to reimburse broadcast radio stations for costs incurred as a result from reorganization of broadcast television spectrum in the repack. Examples include Congressman Flores' H.R.3685, the Radio Consumer Protection Act and Congressman Pallone's H.R.3347, the Viewer Protection Act of 2017. However, it is way too early to predict how successful those efforts will be.
Of course, for many, we still have some time. The repack is to be accomplished in 10 phases. Phase 1 is to be completed next November. The tenth and final phase is not to be completed until July of 2020. But, given the scarcity of tower crews, equipment and other resources, it is not clear there will be sufficient capability to meet the TV repack schedules, much less the requirements of radio stations that must make changes to accommodate it. The consequence of failing to meet the deadline date is a mandatory cessation of operations until the new facilities can be completed. You can find out what phase your county and state are in, and what stations are affected at the NAB's new repack website www.tvanswers.org.
If it looks like your station will be affected, now is the time to begin discussions with the tower owner and all other stations on the tower and make sure you have or will get an auxiliary site for your station should it be needed. American Tower's Jim Stenberg's admonition is, "Make sure you evaluate opportunities for temporary or auxiliary operation on the same tower or, if necessary on a separate tower and evaluate the coverage effects from these operations." And finally, be prepared to deal with the tower structural and reloading requirements of ANSI/TIA-222 Rev-G.
Gregg Skall is a long-time member of Womble Bond Dickinson’s Communications, Technology and Media team who represents broadcasters and other parties in their regulatory dealings before the Federal Communications Commission and in their commercial business dealings.