Spectrum Auction to Spark Crew Shortage

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As the late-March FCC-orchestrated spectrum auction approaches, speculation grows that too-few tower crews will be available to make broadcasters’ TV transitions smoothly and within the three-year window prescribed by the Commission. In November, the NAB released a study it commissioned Digital Tech Consulting to perform titled “Broadcast Spectrum Repacking Timeline, Resource and Cost Analysis Study.” The 60-page report detailed possible obstructions, key of which was lack of human resources to do the heavy lifting.

While no one knows for sure exactly how many broadcasters will move or sell their spectrum, as many as 1,200 could and that would immediately initiate a huge demand for tower teams. During the holiday break, Tom Silliman, president and CEO at antenna manufacturer ERI (and a tower rigger himself), told TV Technology the number of qualified crews is about the same as it was prior to the DTV transition in 2009.

“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.”

And the concerns ripple through the entire industry. Keith L. Pelletier, vice president and general manager of antenna manufacturer Dielectric told TV Technology he’s also concerned about industry readiness and said the range of preparedness “varies.” He added, “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.”

And then there is the issue of safety.

NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway told the publication, “The timeline is a concern to us, especially the 36-month window. 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.”

Editor’s Note: NAB Executive Vice President, Communications Dennis Wharton confirms for Inside Towers that the spectrum repack window is currently 39 months. “We are urging Congress/FCC to change that because we believe that’s an unrealistic target given the complexity of the transition, the lack of adequate tower crews, the monumental task of moving 1,000 TV stations or more to a new TV channel, etc.,” Wharton added.

January 4, 2016 |
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