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New DTV Tower Boosts Four Stations

Denver facility, 10 years in making, 'took an act of Congress' 3/07/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Because of pressure by community groups and environmentalists, it has taken 10 years for a consortium of Denver stations to build a new $20 million master tower facility to support digital television (DTV) broadcasts. Finally, it's happening.

The Lake Cedar Group—which represents CBS owned-and-operated KCNC, Gannett's NBC affiliate KUSA and MyNetworkTV affiliate KTVD, and McGraw-Hill's ABC affiliate KMGH—is nearing completion of a 730-foot tower on Lookout Mountain, west of Denver, that is slated to begin operation on April 14. The tower, built by Canadian firm Radian, was “topped off” last month; last week, transmission line and antennas from Dielectric and transmitters from Harris were being delivered and installed.

But getting approvals was a challenge, and in the end “it really took an act of Congress,” says Don Perez, the former technology chief for KUSA who now serves as Lake Cedar Group's general manager. Lake Cedar began clearing the tower site during the winter of 2007. Federal legislation was needed to make the Lake Cedar site happen.

The tower will finally allow those four stations to offer high-powered DTV broadcasts. To date, the four stations have only been able to transmit low-power digital signals from the top of Republic Plaza, the tallest building in downtown Denver, making Denver the last remaining top 30 market to still not offer high-powered DTV broadcasts from all major network affiliates. (Fox O&O KDVR and Tribune station and CW affiliate KWGN transmit their own high-powered DTV broadcasts from towers at a different site on Lookout, while PBS station KRMA broadcasts DTV from Mount Morrison, south of Lookout.)

“Obviously, it feels great,” says KMGH engineering director Rick Craddock. “Initially, it was hard to believe we were actually underway.”

The analog facilities on Lookout consist of a tall tower for KCNC and smaller towers for the Gannett and McGraw-Hill stations. Lake Cedar's initial proposal in 1998 was to create an 800-foot master tower atop Lookout that would consolidate and streamline operations for the TV and radio stations on the mountain.

But the idea ran into heavy opposition from local residents and environmentalists, who had health concerns over RF emissions. Also, Jefferson County zoning officials feared the tower might damage nearby homes in case of collapse. The battle lasted the better part of a decade before being settled.

In 2003, the consortium appeared to turn a corner when it won county approval for a tower located some 200 feet down the mountain from the initially proposed site, with a single transmitter building constructed partly underground. But a slew of rezoning appeals and court decisions followed, including an unsuccessful attempt by the nearby town of Golden to take control of the Lake Cedar tower site through an eminent-domain proceeding.

By late 2006, Lake Cedar was still no closer to a solution for how its roughly 200,000 over-the-air viewers would receive digital broadcasts. That's when U.S. Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) co-sponsored legislation that would give any station with a federal permit the right to construct DTV facilities on Lookout. The bill was passed by the Senate and House and signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 22, 2006, paving the way for construction in time to meet the Feb. 17, 2009, “hard date” for the turn-off of analog signals.

“By the second week in January, we were moving snow and starting the grading and roads,” recalls David Layne, KCNC director of operations and engineering. “It was not easy, and we struggled at times keeping the diesel Caterpillars running in sub-zero temperatures.”

Meaningful construction began in early spring 2007, and the physical construction of the tower commenced last September. Due to the political pressures Lake Cedar faced, there were some unique technical concessions engineered into the tower site. The biggest is a 250-foot tunnel that runs downhill from the transmitter building to the tower and will hold the transmission line. Instead of constructing a more traditional ice bridge to run the transmission line along, Lake Cedar bored the tunnel out of the mountainside to avoid disturbing the appearance of the mountain's ridgeline as much as possible.

“With good engineering, would we put the transmission line in a 250-foot tunnel at a pretty good grade down the side of a mountain?” Perez quips. “That was far more about the aesthetic and political sensitivities than good engineering. Obviously, it was a lot more costly thing to do, and it will be a troublesome thing to be changing transmission lines. There are a number of advantages to an ice bridge, but the tunnel addresses aesthetic and political considerations.”

Like Layne, KUSA Director of Technology and Operations Ken Highberger is optimistic about the DTV coverage the new tower will afford.

“It will be quite good, I think,” says Highberger. “This is not an exact science, no matter what they tell you. You don't know precisely, and you try to do the very best you can; after all, the FCC approaches this as if everything were flat ground. But I'm very optimistic it will give us really good coverage.”

E-mail comments to glen.dickson@reedbusiness.com.

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