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Sprint Nextel Seals Station Deals - Broadcasting & Cable

Sprint Nextel Seals Station Deals

Wireless giant is doing spectrum shift for Tribune and Hearst-Argyle affiliates
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Sprint Nextel has reached deals with station groups Tribune Broadcasting and Hearst-Argyle Television on how they will be reimbursed for new microwave gear. Part of the FCC’s spectrum-relocation plan, the so-called “2 GHz Relocation” is the result of a $4.8 billion agreement the FCC brokered with Sprint Nextel in February 2005. It moves some of Sprint Nextel’s operations from the 800 megahertz (MHz) frequency band to the 2 gigahertz (GHz) band, which broadcasters use to send both live and taped feeds from their trucks to the station.

Under the plan, broadcasters will move off current electronic newsgathering (ENG) channels and use digital microwave gear to continue operations in a smaller slice of microwave spectrum. The FCC’s deadline is September 2007.

Negotiations between Sprint Nextel and broadcasters over legal and accounting issues bogged the plan down until last spring, when the wireless carrier and various station groups agreed on a rough template for equipment reimbursement. Since then, vendors have been producing digital microwave gear and stockpiling it in their warehouses, waiting for purchase orders to flow in.

FINALLY, A BREAKTHROUGH

Sprint Nextel reports that, through mid September, 97% of licensees in the 2 GHz band, known as Broadcast Auxiliary Services (BAS) licensees, have begun relocation. Some 77% of the affected broadcasters have submitted equipment inventories, and nearly half of those have been verified. But only 7% of BAS licensees have signed a frequency-relocation agreement (FRA) with Sprint Nextel.

According to Sprint Nextel VP Michael Degitz, about 85 stations, including a half dozen large groups, have signed FRAs. The wireless operator took a big step recently when it came to terms with Tribune, which has 25 stations, and Hearst-Argyle, with 26. Technically, Sprint has reached an FRA with only a single station from each group: Tribune’s WGN Chicago and Hearst-Argyle’s WESH Orlando, Fla. But both broadcasters say those deals serve as a template for the rest of their stations’ relocations. “We’re not going to go back and renegotiate each station uniquely,” says Ira Goldstone, chief technology officer for Tribune Broadcasting.

Both Tribune and Hearst-Argyle expect to receive digital microwave gear and begin test operations before year’s end. WGN aims to receive the equipment within the next 30-45 days; WESH will send out purchase orders “any day now,” says Hearst-Argyle VP of Engineering Marty Faubell. Since the spectrum shift involves multiple stations in a market’s moving their operations within the 2 GHz frequency band, for now, WGN and WESH plan to compress digital operations within the same ENG channel they have been using for analog transmission.

WGN’s conversion involves more than 24 microwave transmitters and more than 15 receivers, including both fixed sites and portable units, says WGN Director of Engineering Marc Drazin. Which sites get converted first may depend on zoning issues; it took the station five months to get the appropriate city permits to perform some unrelated antenna work at the John Hancock Building in Chicago. Since WGN’s receive equipment at Sears Tower is located inside on the 104th floor, that ENG site may be the first to get the upgrade.

“Our goal is to take one site down and convert swiftly, do one or two vans swiftly, and then go out and test stuff,” says Drazin, noting that WGN has already successfully used digital microwave gear from its helicopter.

Tribune and Hearst-Argyle have selected the same vendor for their gear: Microwave Radio Corp. (MRC). While WGN is getting only standard-def digital ENG equipment for now, the ability to easily upgrade to HD was a major selling point. So was the ability to integrate working systems in advance on the floor of MRC’s warehouse. “We needed to know it worked before we hoisted it up on Hancock or Sears,” says Drazin.

“READY TO MARCH”

Hearst-Argyle went with MRC for similar reasons. Faubell says WCVB Boston has also been successfully using MRC digital microwave gear since 2001, when it developed one of the first digital ENG vans in partnership with Wolf Coach and Tandberg. He isn’t sure which station will follow WESH but says, “We’re ready to march in about eight other markets.”

WPMT Harrisburg, Pa., is the next Tribune station slated to go (Sprint Nextel has scheduled relocations based on geographic areas, not market size). Goldstone doesn’t know the exact timing for other stations but says Tribune still aims to meet the FCC deadline: “We’re moving forward under the assumption that September 2007 is the date.”

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