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Xmitter power play

Transmitter manufacturers have gone from developing new products to developing ways to help broadcasters more easily handle the transition to digital. And for many broadcasters, those plans involve a gradual move from low- to high-power operations.

Jim Zaroda, regional sales manager for EMCEE Broadcast Products/ABS High Power Division, says that, depending on the size of the antenna and the power of the transmitter, stations must pay $125,000 or more for a new antenna and some $25,000 for a new filter. Meanwhile, an existing transmitter can be retuned at an engineering cost of about $10,000.

EMCEE's Digital Transmission Strategy has been extended beyond low-power products with the recent addition of a High Power Division. The approach is to start with a lower-powered transmitter that is expandable to higher power.

Starting with a low-power digital transmitter, the station pays about $150,000 for transmitter and antenna. The subsequent upgrade would involve some $470,000 for the transmitter and $125,000 for a new high-powered antenna. Zaroda points to a two-year electricity bill of about $6,000 on low power. This compares with about $150,000 in electricity consumption at a full power of 50 kW.

Mark Aitken, special assistant to the president at Acrodyne, says that price concerns will drive the digital products that stations use. Acrodyne is addressing DTV upgrading with its Quantum IOT transmitter. Quantums regularly cost $350,000 and up. Aitken notes that, depending upon the antenna chosen, a transmitter of up to 5 kW can easily achieve an effective radiated power (ERP) of 50 kW or more. Dick Fiore, vice president of sales, broadcast, for the Broadcast Division of Thomcast Communications, expects to see a large number of stations making transmitter decisions at next year's NAB convention. But he also sees considerable holding back among those that still don't have construction permits.

"The FCC has been slow in issuing construction permits, which will accurately define the frequencies and power levels that these stations need to be built to," he asserts. "A lot of stations are hard-pressed to make purchasing decisions, because there's a heavy cost if they guess wrong."

Thomcast's Odyssey Series addresses a low-power, interim approach. For stations going on the air at as low as 1 kW, about 75% of the initial transmitter cost will be applicable to an upgrade, Fiore says.

Howard McClure, vice president, North American operations at Itelco USA, says that the cost savings of a low-power approach make sense. "In digital, in fact, if you have too much power, you can create multipath problems."

McClure notes that broadcasters can start with solid state and go to IOT for anything over 10 kW. While the exciter and driver will be the same, the masked filter would not suffice for the higher-powered transmitter. He says a 1-kW DTV transmitter will cost about $115,000, with a little more than half of this amount applicable to the higher-powered transmitter.

In Nielsen markets 51 to 100, Dave Glidden, director of transmission products for Harris Corp., Broadcast Communications Division, has seen a mix of stations starting out with full power and those opting for upgradable systems. He points out there is some concern over the full-coverage deadline of Dec. 31, 2004: Those not at maximum power at that time will not be guaranteed protection from interference by the FCC.

Harris is offering several ways that stations can move from low to full power. Glidden says the most typical way is purchasing a system that upgrades from one cabinet to three. Starting at 20 kW to 25 kW, for example, they can still use the waveguide, filtering and combining when they have expanded to three cabinets and 75 kW.

Jim Adamson, president of transmitter builder Larcan, is concerned with serving broadcasters with appropriate content and subsequent revenue as they await a DTV payoff.

"The best thing manufacturers can do is offer a variety of solutions to suit their individual situations," he suggests. "We have transmitters ranging from 100W on up and packages to move up economically."

Adamson also doesn't consider today's offerings as having built-in obsolescence: "Once you start feeding a transmitter with a digital bitstream, the possibilities are endless. The purchaser can feel secure that developments that come along will be related to the payload and that he'll still be transmitting that bitstream."