T-Mobile refutes DTC study, says incentive auction repack can happen on time and on budget

T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) seems confident the broadcast industry can move to a more spectrum-efficient band plan within the 39-month timeframe set by the FCC and at or under the $1.75 billion budget set by Congress, following next month's 600 MHz incentive auctions.

That's according to a study completed with help from broadcast engineering firms BTTi and Hammett & Edison, that the operator recently submitted to the FCC. The three companies say they studied the FCC's repacking-simulation data, performed analysis of the information broadcast stations submitted to the FCC, and conducted numerous phone interviews with broadcast industry vendors in order to conduct station-by-station analysis of the resources required to move all remaining stations in the United States to a new band plan following the conclusion of the 600 MHz broadcast incentive auction.

T-Mobile's new study serves to refute findings from a recent Digital Tech Consulting (DTC) study, commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which cites qualified tower crew and manufacturer shortages, and safety concerns as roadblocks to making all the broadcast antenna changes that will be required following the auction.

According to T-Mobile's study, fewer antennas are needed than DTC estimated and manufacturing is ramping up, and there are more tower, transmission, and antenna installers and fitters than DTC identified.

Specifically, the T-Mobile study says approximately 25 percent of UHF broadcasters report using antennas capable of operating over multiple UHF channels, approximately 13 percent of UHF broadcasters use antennas that cover 30 or more TV channels, and approximately 56 percent of UHF broadcasters use antennas that are side mounted, which makes removing and installing new antennas much easier than more costly and complex topmount installations.

The T-Mobile study also says there are more qualified tower crews than the 16 the DTC report says will be available to help with the channel repack. According to T-Mobile and BTTi, there are 41 crews in the U.S. that are qualified to work on towers taller than 1,000 feet and that were not found to have any material OSHA violations in the past 10 years. The T-Mobile study also puts the number of available, qualified RF consulting engineers at 53, well ahead of the 35 DTC identified in its report. BTTi found 19 firms qualified for tall-tower analysis, much more than the seven identified by DTC.

T-Mobile's assuredness that the incentive auction channel repack can be finished with the 39-month timeline stands in slight opposition to AT&T (NYSE: T), which recently said it supports a "realistic" timeline for the repack, saying an effective transition is more important than sticking to the current timeframe.

The tall tower industry seems even more doubtful that the entire broadcast channel repack process can be wrapped up in the three years allotted, based on the same concerns of crew and manufacturer shortages and safety issues that DTC brought up in its report.

Thomas Silliman, president of Electronics Research, told FierceInstaller that broadcast tower work has been scarce since the digital TV transition in 2009, leading qualified industry crews and vendors to be cautious and hold back on ramping up until they have the work. But when that work comes, Silliman said it will be too much for the industry, as it currently stands, to finish within the FCC's mandated timeframe.

"We're in the famine period now, getting ready for the feast. So here we are: we're skinny as hell and the food is going to kill us," Silliman said.

For more:
- see this FCC filing (PDF)

Related articles:
Incentive auction channel repack offers big risk, big reward
AT&T wants a 'realistic' repacking schedule for FCC's upcoming 600 MHz incentive spectrum auction
600 MHz auction and channel repacking will drive demand for tower workers

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