Extreme Weather Brings Uncertainty to Broadcast TV Signal Shuffle

By Kyle Daly

This year’s intense hurricane season has some broadcasters concerned that similar extreme weather events in the future could threaten their ability to pull off a major airwaves move on schedule.

Broadcasters including CBS Corp. and Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. are readying to move station transmissions to new signals after wireless providers and others, including T-Mobile US Inc. and Dish Network Corp., bought spectrum licenses the FCC auctioned off.

The Federal Communications Commission is overseeing the first phase of the ten-part broadcast “repack” slated to take 39 months. But a hurricane or other extreme weather event could severely disrupt the process if it occurs while broadcasters are in the middle of performing the tower work necessary to switch signals.

“Winter is coming, and it’s very difficult to get those tower crews up there, and get them up there safely for the conditions we know are coming, let alone the unanticipated ones, like the hurricanes. It’s very concerning,” said Patrick Butler, CEO of America’s Public Television Stations, a membership group representing public broadcasters.

Weather worries mean broadcasters want to know that they can get more time for a signal move if they need it. But wireless providers—eager to use the airwaves to meet surging demands for high-speed mobile data—want the move to happen on schedule. Any delays in the reshuffling of broadcast signals will mean the carriers will have to wait longer to access the airwaves.

“Crises such as hurricanes and wild fires have a way of mocking the best laid plans of systems analysts and of testing the limits of good intentions,” broadcast attorney John Crigler, an owner at Garvey Schubert Barer, told Bloomberg BNA via email. “The accuracy of weather forecasts declines quickly after a few days. I’d be amazed if a three-year forecast is accurate enough to accommodate all contingencies.”

Snags this early in the process are unlikely to have a lasting impact on broadcasters’ ability to hit deadlines. Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria, despite their severity, aren’t expected to ultimately extend the timetable. But the process could be strained much more from catastrophic weather on the U.S. mainland on the scale of Hurricane Maria, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Sept. 21 “has had a catastrophic impact on Puerto Rico’s communications networks.”

The first major deadline doesn’t come until Sept. 14, 2018, when broadcasters in the first phase of the repack will have to finish construction and move on to equipment testing. Extreme weather in spring or summer of next year could have a “much bigger impact” on the construction deadline being met, Donald Doty, vice president of operations at tower engineering firm FDH Velocitel, told Bloomberg BNA. Most broadcasters that the FCC has assigned to be in the first several phases hope to have construction done before the end of summer 2018, he said.

If weather pushes that work back, broadcasters may not be able to hit their construction deadlines—and that could have a ripple effect. The FCC sorted broadcasters into phases in the first place both to avoid a massive crunch of simultaneous signal moves all jockeying for a finite amount of equipment and tower crews, and to accommodate so-called “daisy chains,” in which broadcasters have to get off their spectrum before a broadcaster in a neighboring market can move. The timing of each phase is also linked, with each phase slated to move into the testing period as soon as the preceding phase finishes. Any significant construction delays could affect a large number of broadcasters in a given phase and, potentially, broadcasters slotted into subsequent phases.

Towers Escape Damage

Towers generally proved to be sturdy against Harvey and Irma. Each storm caused just one mainland U.S. station apiece to have to indefinitely suspend operations because of storm damage, according to FCC records. Maria appears unlikely to impact the U.S. mainland heavily.

Broadcast tower resiliency in the face of two historic storms means most station owners won’t have to grapple with extensive repairs while also trying to get started with work for the repack. But hurricanes and other natural disasters can cause delays that have nothing to do with whether a station is on the air, Doty said. Flooding, road closures, extended power outages, and other consequences of extreme weather have the potential to delay work by days or even weeks. It can take some time before storm-hit areas can return to “some semblance of normalcy, just being able to have a contractor come to the site and not have to stay 50 miles away,” Doty said.

The FCC was mindful of severe weather events when it established the 39-month time frame and left room to adjust deadlines as needed, FCC Incentive Auction Task Force spokesman Charlie Meisch told Bloomberg BNA. The agency will review any broadcaster requests for deadline extensions or other alterations to repack requirements on a case-by-case basis and give preference to requests that seem unlikely to disrupt the overall transition, Meisch said.

Broadcasters want more assurances that the FCC will offer sufficient flexibility and won’t hold them liable for circumstances beyond their control, Rick Kaplan, general counsel for broadcast trade group the National Association of Broadcasters, testified in a recent House hearing.

“Acts of Mother Nature like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are unpredictable, and don’t respect government timelines,” NAB Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton told Bloomberg BNA via email. He said the NAB is “confident” the FCC or Congress “will adjust deadlines accordingly to ensure that viewers are not disenfranchised from access to lifeline local TV programming.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.