Now that the FCC’s broadcast spectrum, or repack, auction has ended, the hard work begins.
The auction presented significant financial opportunities for the many broadcasters who participated, however, there are now a variety of issues that must be addressed. The reality is that we’re currently in the process of essentially rebuilding some of the broadcast industry’s critical infrastructure, and we have 39 months to do it.
Time Is Money
The FCC has allocated $1.75B to fund the activities related to the repack including tower work, equipment purchases and professional services. Payments will happen during the phases of the process, and each of the 987 stations that sold spectrum in the auction have been assigned a phase. However, because there is no indication that the FCC will allocate further funding beyond the initial payouts, it’s very important that stations take full advantage of all available resources, and are proactive in securing what they’ll need to successfully make the transition.
Of the three options broadcast stations have to clear the spectrum—collocate-in-place and change frequency, remain on air via channel sharing, or go off the air—a vast majority of TV stations are now moving toward channel sharing. It’s an especially attractive solution for stations who may have initially elected to go off the air because it allows them to monetize the value of their spectrum yet remain in their current markets and continue to broadcast.
Too Tall to Fail?
Broadcast towers present very different challenges compared to other communication infrastructure. While broadband can utilize macro or small cells as well as locations that are relatively low to the ground or high on rooftops, broadcast needs size and extreme height. For instance, in Chicago, virtually all broadcasters use a select number of the city’s highest rooftops to transmit their signals.
The challenge is that very few new broadcast-suited towers are being built, especially in higher density areas, which means that broadcasters must seriously consider other infrastructure options.
An interesting solution for stations that want to continue broadcasting after selling spectrum – but may not have traditional tower access – is FM Radio tower sites. With the same characteristics as TV, FM radio towers can be a viable co-location option, and there are lots of them. In fact, most municipalities and many rural areas have antenna “farms” where TV and radio towers co-exist, so the transition from one to another is less complicated than it may appear.
Bottom line: If stations want the best transmission, with the least interference, they should consider working with infrastructure providers who can offer a diversified portfolio. In other words, a combination of traditional TV towers as well as FM options.
Another challenge that many broadcasters face is having access to trained tower crews. The height and intricacies of broadcast towers require a very specific type of workforce that can make the needed changes during the repack implementation. However, there’s a limited number of crews across the country that are skilled enough to do this type of work, and even though more are being trained, they are in extremely high demand. Consequently, broadcasters should be planning ahead for their repack projects to ensure qualified crews are available to meet their schedules.
The Time Is Now
While the industry faces a number of post-auction challenges, there are solutions for the 987 stations that sold spectrum. There are also resources available in unexpected places that shouldn’t be ignored. For example, T-Mobile’s efforts–along with others–to be a proactive partner to stations can play a key role in helping broadcasters address their infrastructure needs as they work to clear the spectrum and meet the FCC deadline.
This is an exciting and important time for the industry but if we’re to be successful, broadcasters must work together, explore a variety of options, and most importantly, work now vs. later to achieve a smooth transition.
Bernard Borghei is cofounder and executive VP of operations at Vertical Bridge, the largest owner and manager of communications infrastructure in the U.S. Gary Hess is Vertical Bridge’s VP of broadcast leasing.
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