Coronavirus Hits Repack as Tower Crews Are Impacted

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Several factors related to the coronavirus, including tower crew availability and overseas equipment delays, have affected the television broadcast repack. That’s why the FCC on Tuesday said it will allow stations scheduled to move to their new channel in Phase 9 to move to Phase 10 if needed.

At this time, the agency is not pausing the repack, but says it will continue to monitor the situation. The Commission said it became, “aware that at least one tower company has imposed a two-week suspension of field service, including work on repack-related construction, while it evaluates the evolving situation. We anticipate that there may be additional suspensions of service and other developments in this unfolding situation that may impact the transition.”

Inside Towers hears that a number of tower crews have been recalled home due to the pandemic, to avoid being stranded in the field, or because of a specific COVID-19 diagnosis. While some crews are willing to stay in the field and continue working, there are concerns about access to food, hotels, etc. during the coming weeks.

Phase 9 of the repack began on March 14, and is scheduled to end on May 1. The Commission said it recognizes that construction and delivery delays are occurring as a result of the virus. In addition, efforts undertaken by stations to protect the health of their employees and their families result from circumstances outside of a station’s control. Any station scheduled to complete its transition in Phase 9 that believes it may be unable to meet the May 1 deadline will be granted a waiver and reassigned to Phase 10. That phase begins on May 2, and ends on July 3.

The waiver requests should state that the station’s frequency move is delayed due to circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It needs to be filed as a legal request for special temporary authority in the Licensing Management System and with a copy via email to [email protected] and [email protected].

Stations assigned to Phase 8 successfully met their transition deadline on March 13, according to the agency. The FCC granted construction permit extensions to certain stations assigned to Phase 8 in light of delivery delays of equipment being manufactured outside the United States.

Both NATE and the NAB praised the FCC move. NATE President/CEO Todd Schlekeway said the association contacted many of its broadcast contractor member companies on the front lines of the repack. They provided detailed information the health threat is having on their companies and crews, “including the myriad of problems associated with the scheduling, logistics and coordination that are an integral part of this specialized work. Providing relief in the form of the extension of deadlines is an important step for the FCC to take in order to ensure that NATE member companies and others involved can complete their work in a safe and quality manner during these unpredictable times.”

“There’s no playbook for this,” Schlekeway told Inside Towers. He said not all contractors have pulled their crews, but many have. Many of these crews travel 40 to 50-thousand miles a year, much of that on planes, he said.    

Up in the air is whether Phase 10 will be delayed. NATE will continue to monitor the situation and stay in contact with its broadcast contractor members in the event more deadline extensions are needed.

NAB EVP of Communications Dennis Wharton said the association “strongly supports” the move, “given the uncertainty over tower equipment delivery delays related to the worldwide coronavirus crisis. In this time of uncertainty, it’s vital that local TV viewers maintain access to credible broadcast news sources. We look forward to a speedy end to the viral pandemic, and a resumption of work by tower crews to successfully complete the repack and ensure access to our tens of millions of viewers.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

 

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