Tower Crunch Difficult to Address, Industry Officials Say

A shortage of experienced broadcast tower crews to do the work required for the post-incentive auction repacking likely means the FCC’s deadline won’t be met, tower company executives and broadcast equipment manufacturers told us. Though equipment manufacturers such as Dielectric and GatesAir told us they were able to ramp up production to be ready to meet the heavy demands of repacking broadcasters, there’s no practical way to create more experienced tower workers required to install that equipment on the tallest TV towers, they said. Combined with challenges of upgrading existing towers and concerns about the weather, industry officials are skeptical the repacking can be accomplished in the 39-month time frame laid out by the FCC. “I think it will take more like five to seven years,” said Kevin Barber, CEO of Texas-based tower company Tower King II.

Tower crews aren’t interchangeable, industry officials said. There are very few of the highest-tier tower companies in the U.S., able to travel throughout the country and work on the highest towers, lifting the heaviest equipment, Barber said. Tower owners such as American Tower require workers to follow certain safety procedures and carry expensive insurance policies, and not every tower company can afford that, said Electronics Research Inc. Vice President-Marketing Bill Harland. Companies and broadcasters also form relationships with tower crews, and are likely to be reluctant if an overbooked schedule requires them to use different companies, Barber said. Such policies can vary in cost among states, so the bills for the same job can be very different, he said. That’s a problem since the FCC’s catalog of reimbursable expenses for the repacking assigns blanket costs to various tasks, Barber said. “Every job is a little bit different.”

The tower crew industry suffered a hit in the years before the incentive auction, when FCC freezes on station alteration drastically reduced the amount of available work. Though National Association of Tower Erectors Executive Director Todd Schlekeway said he didn’t have statistics on the broadcast tower workforce, he said the wireless tower industry has a labor shortage, and that likely indicates a similar issue on the broadcast side. Some tower companies suggested workers re-entering the workforce could take up the slack, but Barber said there’s not enough of them to fully address the shortage. CCIA didn’t comment.

“For more than a year, we’ve worked closely and collaboratively with multiple tower companies to prepare for the repacking, and we believe the crews and equipment are in place to complete the transition within the FCC’s 39-month timeframe,” said T-Mobile Vice President-Government Affairs Steve Sharkey in a statement.

Wireless tower work “is a completely different animal” than broadcast tower work, Schlekeway said, making it unlikely workers in one industry could work in the other. Crews used to smaller cell towers may be sufficient for certain broadcast towers, such as the shorter ones at high elevations, said GatesAir Chief Product Officer Rich Redmond. The bigger crunch will come for the most experienced crews and the demand for their services on the tallest towers, he said. Tower crews in the U.S. generally can’t be bolstered by crews from other countries because the structures and work required are very different, officials said.

Some aspects of the repacking make it likely such crews will be in high demand, industry officials said. Many repacked broadcasters were moved to lower frequencies, and lower frequencies require bigger antennas, said Dielectric Director-Marketing Kim Savage. It takes more expert crews and more expensive equipment to move and install larger devices in towers, she said. Since costs will be at least partially reimbursed, many broadcasters also are opting for more effective top-mount antennas, which also require more experienced workers, industry officials said. Many towers also need to be upgraded to bear the greater weight and meet code requirements, Barber said. Few crews do that sort of work, and tower improvements such as new guy wires need a long manufacturing lead time, Savage said. Electronics Research is widely engaged in tower analyses and inspections for this sort of work, Harland said: “It is very specialized work.”

Rio Steel Tower Chief Operating Officer Keith Cendrick believes the tower industry could handle the repacking workload, but said it needs more time. The timing issue is exacerbated by broadcasters being slow to place orders and get tower work lined up, Cendrick said. Tower companies aren’t able to ramp up as they should right now because not enough orders are coming in yet to sustain the extra employees required, he said. If the demand for tower work is condensed into the end of the repacking timeline, it will exacerbate the problem. A lack of certainty about reimbursement may be what’s holding broadcasters back from ordering work, and the industry needs to determine how to address that issue, Cendrick said.

Tower and equipment officials we spoke with cited weather as another wild card. Some broadcast groups have scheduled all their tower work out until 2020, but those schedules could be radically altered by bad weather conditions, Savage said. Warmer, southern locations are likely to have few delays, but that could differ in the Northeast and Midwest, Barber said. The issue is compounded by the 39-month time frame, providing less leeway for the unexpected, Redmond said. “The transition schedule reflects input from industry stakeholders on several factors, including resource availability and weather,” an Incentive Auction Task Force spokesman said. “We intend to monitor these variables along with the overall progress of the transition.”

Redmond said broadcast equipment companies such as GatesAir are used to working on national-scale projects like the repacking. His company is working on the digital transition in Russia, he said. “Broadcasters have a lot of support.” Meanwhile, the tower work in the U.S. is beginning soon, Barber said. His company starts its first repacking tower job in roughly two weeks, he said.

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