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Vitec Bolsters Microwave Business

The Vitec Group, a U.K.-based conglomerate of small-to mid-sized professional video vendors, has rounded out its wireless transmission business by closing the previously announced acquisition of microwave repair and support firm Microwave Service Corporation (MSC) of Haverhill, Mass.

Vitec, which has some 2,000 employees worldwide and $450 million in annual revenues, is absorbing MSC as a part of larger deal to grow its microwave business in which Vitec acquired microwave vendors NuComm of Hackettstown, N.J. and RF Central of Carlisle, Pa. Under that transaction, which closed earlier this month, Vitec paid an initial aggregate consideration of $38.5 million with a further $37.3 million payable over the next four years depending on performance. RF Central had previously announced plans to acquire MSC, whose president Warren Parece will remain with the company.

In the short term, the acquisitions of NuComm, RF Central and MSC are aimed squarely at a U.S.-government mandated transition from analog to digital microwave gear known as the 2 Gigahertz (GHz) Relocation Project. Under the FCC-mandated process, Sprint Nextel is buying local stations over $500 million in new microwave gear, which will allow stations to transmit live remote and other electronic news gathering (ENG) feeds in a smaller swath of spectrum, thus freeing up spectrum for Sprint.

But according to Vitec chief technology officer Jerry Gepner, there is a broader opportunity for Vitec’s new microwave businesses beyond the 2 GHz project in the U.S.

“Overall, the growth [in the industry] is a move to wireless things in general, and a trend away from hardwired devices,” says Gepner, a mobile production veteran who ran field operations in the early days of Fox Sports, co-founded production enhancement firm Sportvision, and then ran mobile truck vendor National Mobile Television before joining Vitec two years ago.

“It’s everything from Wi-Max to having more wireless cameras on the sideline of a sporting event,” says Gepner. “People want portability and flexibility.”

In that vein, RF Central has been marketing $30,000 “suitcase” transmission systems, formally known as “Portable High-Power Transmitters,” that let an ordinary passenger car serve as an ENG vehicle for short-range news coverage. And NuComm is developing camera-mounted transmitters that will be able to relay live feeds directly from a high-definition camcorder to a microwave truck. Those units, aimed at both news and sports applications, will range from $45,000 to $70,000, depending on features.

While both NuComm and RF Central have built a lot of digital microwave gear to satisfy orders from Sprint Nextel for the 2 GHz transition, both companies say the pace of shipments to stations has been slow. That echoes recent comments from broadcasters about the pace of the transition, which was supposed to be completed by Sept. 30, 2007. Sprint Nextel has asked the FCC for more time to complete the process, but the FCC has reiterated that it expects the conversion to be completed by the end of September.

“We have been building a tremendous amount of inventory which we are holding, which [Sprint] Nextel has already paid us for,” says NuComm president Dr. John Payne. “But in terms of shipping to broadcasters, that’s been going very slowly. It’s starting to accelerate, but it’s still at a snail’s pace.”