The relocation of stations’ digital microwave facilities is continuing at a frenetic pace but with many projects still not complete, Sprint Nextel may not be able to meet its extended deadline to get broadcasters off the analog spectrum that the telco industry wants to use for new wireless services. Late last month the FCC pushed back the deadline by which Sprint Nextel must complete the 2GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) relocation project to March 5, 2009.
The cause for the delays is widespread and includes initial lengthy negotiations between Sprint and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), the organization that represents full-power broadcasters. Other reasons for delay are the slow reaction from stations to get their orders in, and a lack of enough system integration crews to complete the work.
The lack of completed work is not just a symptom of smaller markets. For example, according to Sprint’s BAS Web site (www.2ghzrelocation.com), among the 10 stations operating in and around New York City, only five have completed their relocation. And out of those, the only major network affiliate to do so is WNBC-DT (along with its sister Telemundo station WNJU).
Stations recently completing conversion of their microwave equipment from analog to digital include KXTX-TV, in Dallas-Ft. Worth, WNBC, in Washington, D.C., and WKYC-DT, in Cleveland, OH.
Sprint has also agreed to reimburse the “reasonable expenses” of those secondary station licenses, including low-power television stations, television translators and stations operating under the FCC’s 720-hour rule.
The extension is the latest in a series of delays the commission has granted since the project’s original September 2007 deadline. Previous commission extensions were granted as a series of 30-day waivers to the original deadline. As of March 12, Sprint Nextel reported on its Web site that 71 percent of BAS licensees had completed agreements for the transition.
A huge undertaking
Sprint Nextel has undertaken the BAS relocation project as part of a large frequency swap. Originally, the company and BAS licensees had until Sept. 7, 2007, a 31.5-month period to complete the effort. The 2GHz relocation plan requires BAS channel 1-7 operating from 1990MHz to 2110MHz to move to digital channels between 2025MHz and 2110MHz.
The FCC originally mandated that broadcasters, fixed link service users and others who operate within the 1990MHz to 2110MHz spectrum band (BAS channels 1-7) had to replace and/or upgrade their 2GHz transmission facilities within 31.5 months (from Jan. 21, 2005, to Sept. 7, 2007) to operate within 2025MHz to 2110MHz. The original deadline of Sept. 7, 2007, came and went, and a large majority of stations had not made the move. The 1990MHz to 2110MHz band (2GHz BAS band) is currently used by the BAS to cover news and live sporting events.
For its efforts — and at considerable expense — Sprint Nextel will receive a part of the current BAS Channel 1 in exchange for relinquishing spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz range. This was part of an FCC order designed to resolve a public safety interference problem in the 800MHz spectrum band. The BAS project is costing Sprint about $50,000 to $100,000 per station, and there are about 500 stations that use the spectrum for news.
Microwave suppliers keeping up
RF Central markets a range of portable digital microwave receivers, available in both SD and HD versions, which are compliant with the FCC’s BAS relocation project, as are those of Microwave Service Company and Nucomm. (All three are now part of the Vitec Group’s newly formed RF systems unit.) Other suppliers include Microwave Radio Communications and Multidyne.
Under its agreement with the government, Sprint Nextel only has to pay for replacement of equipment that replicates a station’s existing analog transmission capabilities with an SD digital microwave system. HD equipment is an extra cost that stations must pay. Many are choosing SD systems that can be upgraded via simple software key.
Keith Blaisdell, director of engineering and production at RF Central, said stations are using COFDM transmitters and multiple receive sites. The digital equipment is far superior to what stations previously used in analog, with the ability to bounce off building in urban areas. Current analog microwave systems needed line of site between the transmitter (either located on camera or inside an ENG van) and receiver (the station or a microwave truck) to work.
The BAS project has been a complex undertaking for Sprint as well as for broadcasters, Blaisdell said. In addition to manufacturing microwave systems used for the BAS project, RF Central also is supplying the crews responsible for installing the new equipment for stations across the country.
“From a manufacturing standpoint, we’ve always had products available to meet every order we’ve taken from a station,” Blaisdell said. “However, from an integration standpoint there have been a number of issues that have arisen. For example, stations don’t normally like replacing their microwave equipment during sweeps months since this is their highly active time of year. This typically limits some of the on-site work that can be done during those [four] months.”
He also explained that in some cases his crews are replacing equipment that has been in place for many years, so upgrading to the new equipment — including transmitters, antennas and receivers — takes time and more than a little creative engineering to get it done. Also, some stations are replacing equipment in one ENG van while another could require the upgrade of five or six trucks. The average installation job takes two to three weeks per station, although some larger markets might require two months of work.
“Every installation is an individual, custom job, so it takes time,” Blaisdell said. “The microwave system we’re replacing might have been installed by different people over the years who had slightly different ways of implementing the technology. So we have to untangle that web and start from scratch.”
RF Central crews travel with large tractor-trailers filled with new microwave equipment and the tools necessary to make parts of necessary. This makes them more efficient and able to complete projects quicker.
Many feel the deadline will have to be extended once again, as there are too many stations and not enough crews to complete the relocation work by March 2009. The FCC could make its agreement with Sprint null and void if the deadline is not met.
"We have to remember that the BAS relocations, once eventually completed, will be a win-win situation for the entire broadcast," RF Central’s Blaisdell said, “which is why it is important for all of us to be vigilant and patient. It will get done.”Sprint has a Web site dedicated to information on the BAS relocation project at www.2ghzrelocation.com.