Wireless carrier T-Mobile and a team from PBS are working under tight deadlines to find new homes for public TV translators that are being displaced by the FCC’s repack of TV channels.
The low-power translators deliver signals to as many as 38 million viewers in small towns and rural areas across the country. They’re most heavily used in the mountain West, where public television stations such as KUED in Salt Lake City and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain PBS depend on translators to deliver signals in sparsely populated areas beyond the reach of their full-power transmitters.
But the FCC fund authorized by Congress to reimburse broadcasters for costs related to the repack doesn’t cover translators. Only those full-power stations that have to erect new antennas and buy new transmitters for their repacked channels are eligible for reimbursement.
T-Mobile, which spent $8 billion buying spectrum at auction, agreed to pay the repack costs of public TV translators. The deal, negotiated last year by PBS and America’s Public Television Stations, makes it possible for the public TV licensees that operate more than 300 translators to move those signals to new channels.
“I don’t think we understood how much PBS relied on translators,” said Mark Bishop, T-Mobile senior spectrum manager. “We realized that without funding help rural areas could lose access to PBS programming, and that wasn’t something we were comfortable doing.”
The translators that are most immediately affected fall into several groups. The FCC’s timeline requires any translator operating on UHF channels between 38 and 51 to move off those frequencies within the next three years, as they’re removed from the TV spectrum. T-Mobile acquired most of the channels in the 600 MHz band, and in some areas plans to begin using them before the repack process is complete.
Under the terms of the auction, T-Mobile has the right to take over frequencies after giving translator operators in the 600 MHz band 120 days advance notice that they have to move.
Even translators below channel 38 may be affected by the larger repack. They’re subject to being bumped from their current channels if a full-power station is being moved to the channel the translator now uses.
Time running short
With an FCC filing deadline looming, PBS and T-Mobile officials warned attendees at this month’s PBS TechCon in Las Vegas to act quickly if they hope to keep their translators broadcasting.
The FCC initially set a May 15 deadline for translator operators to file for new channels, then responded to pleas for more time by extending the deadline to June 1, said Dana Golub, PBS VP of programs management. “If you don’t file in this displacement window, we don’t know if there will be another chance for you to refile,” she warned. “If you don’t file, you could go dark.”
During a TechCon session, Golub and T-Mobile’s Bishop outlined the resources available to assist pubcasters. Stations can use their own consulting engineers and be reimbursed by T-Mobile for those costs; the wireless carrier also provides funding for stations to work through PBS, which retained consultant Dennis Wallace of Meintel, Sgrignoli and Wallace.
Wallace, who also spoke at the session, explained the intricacies of the FCC’s application process, including a potential hiccup for applicants from areas where other translators may be displaced. That’s a particular concern in many rural Western communities where translators bring in signals from PBS stations and commercial broadcasters from larger cities.
To avoid submitting conflicting applications for the same channels, “it would behoove you to work with the groups that have translators in the same places you do,” Wallace said. “The FCC encourages owners to cooperate with each other.”
Golub says there have been few conflicts so far between PBS stations and other translator operators. “The FCC has a good process,” she says, “and I think everything will resolve itself well.”
So far, so good
With a goal of retaining substantially all of PBS member stations’ existing translator coverage, Golub says outreach efforts are paying off. In addition to the panel discussion at TechCon, Golub’s group hosted a booth in the exhibitors’ hall, where staff wore big buttons spreading the news that the filing window was imminent. As the filing deadline nears, Golub says her team is now reaching out individually to stations that still need assistance.
As of late April, Golub said, “PBS has assisted with the relocation of 48 translators, and there are 144 that are in progress.”
That includes several translators owned by Oregon Public Broadcasting, which depends on dozens of low-power signals to fill in reception holes between its three full-power transmitters. The transition for OPB’s statewide network “wasn’t a heavy lift,” said Duane Smith, VP of engineering, at TechCon. All of OPB’s transmitters were frequency-agile and didn’t require replacement. “One antenna we had to buy new, and one translator required more work, but it went relatively smooth,” he said.
In most cases, Golub said, the total cost of translator relocation is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes less. As in OPB’s case, newer equipment makes it easier to change frequencies.
Even if the dollar amounts are relatively small, she said, the service being saved is extremely important to PBS.
“It’s always fun to be in the seat of helping stations financially,” Golub said, “but especially here where there was so much concern.”