Broadcasters face challenges on tower construction

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(Host) Mount Mansfield is best known as Vermont’s highest peak. The mountain’s size has also made it a coveted location for TV and radio broadcasters.

For the last ten years, broadcast companies, including Vermont Public Radio have wanted new towers on the mountain to accommodate new services and to extend the reach of their signals. Yet they’ve faced challenges in protecting the environment and nearby hiking trails.

They eventually reached a compromise. Three new towers are being built, and the three existing towers will come down by 2009.

VPR’s John Dillon went up to the summit, and has this progress report.

(Sound of a helicopter)

(Dillon) On a clear late summer day, a very skilled helicopter pilot flew in sections of the new transmission towers. The pilot swung each piece into place, while the tower riggers stacked them one on top of the other.

The rugged terrain is one challenge. Then there’s the weather. Ted Teffner is vice president for engineering at WCAX-TV, Channel 3. Last spring, he wanted to get a jump on a very tight construction schedule by starting work the week before Memorial Day.

(Teffner) “And that Monday morning we had two cranes at the bottom of the mountain, ready to roll. Snowed four inches. So we said, ‘well maybe it will go out.’ Next morning, snowed four more inches. And then the crane was tied up, so instead of gaining a week, I lost 10 days.”

(Construction sounds)

(Dillon) It’s Teffner’s job to choreograph the movement of workers and material on this high elevation site. This includes bulky transmitters, the tower structures, and the immense generators needed for back-up power. To house all the new equipment, workers actually wrapped a larger building around an existing structure because the facilities had to be protected from the elements.

(Drilling sounds)

(Dillon) But the construction work was the fast part of the process. The hardest part was figuring out how and where everything would go with the least impact on the fragile mountain environment.

(Teffner) “From the time we had the first meeting with people to tell them what we might need to do, and how it might work, and get their input, to the day I cut a tree, it’s 10 years. Between planning, and permitting and negotiating leases and subleases and agreements between broadcasters.”

(Dillon) The problems were many. The construction season is limited to about 4 and a half months. And Mount Mansfield is home to a rare alpine tundra ecosystem, left behind when the glaciers retreated thousands of years ago. So any site work had to leave these plants untouched.

And then there was the challenge of getting the television broadcasters to work together.

Peter Martin is general manager of WCAX Channel 3.

(Martin) “Yes, there were compromises. For example, there’s pretty extensive sharing of antennas. WCAX and WPTZ will share an antenna. That had to be worked out rather carefully.”

(Dillon) If location, location, location is the biggest factor in real estate, the same rule applies to broadcasting.

The new towers solve three main issues. First, they allow two TV broadcasters, Channel 5 and the local Fox affiliate to move from a mountain in New York to Mt. Mansfield. That will extend the reach of their signal.

Second, the new equipment means antennas will be higher off the ground. The height will resolve a problem that has plagued the area for years – a hiking trail has been closed because of concerns about exposure to high energy radio waves.

And third, the new towers and antennas will allow TV and radio companies to broadcast in the new digital format.

For radio, it means static free, CD style sound quality. Rich Parker is VPR’s director of engineering.

(Parker) “What listeners will hear that have the digital capable radios is a much cleaner, pristine signal, without a lot of the static pops and ticks and things that you hear in certain areas, in fact, none of them. If you receive a clear HD signal, you will not receive any static or interference.”

(Dillon) The new technology also allows VPR and other stations to offer additional programs, a process known as multicasting.

(Parker) “So that means that once we have digital on all our network we can have multiple program streams on the same frequency. Listeners to WVPS 107.9 will be able to hear what they normally hear on VPR but they can also hear a second stream, which will probably be VPR Classical in this area.”

(Dillon) TV stations are under a federal mandate to roll out the new digital TV service. As he tours the construction site, Peter Martin says viewers will see a remarkable difference.

(Martin) “If you’re watching a football game on analog what you’ll see is players on a green field. In digital, you’ll see each blade of grass. It’s literally that sharp; it’s the clarity of a 70 millimeter movie.”

(Dillon) On the mountain, the engineers had to work within a narrow design envelope, limited by the height and number of towers. Engineer Ted Teffner says the plan was to keep the towers under 200 feet tall because of rules that require lights on structures over 200 feet.

(Teffner) “But you have to keep the radio frequency energy off the ground, because there’s very stringent limits from the FCC on that. So now you have this little sandwich thing where you’ve got to get the antennas up but you can’t build anything 200 feet tall. Well that means more towers with antennas on them. Well, then how are you going to sell that in the permitting arena? So we’ve done things like, we’ve shared antennas wherever it was electrically possible.”

(Dillon) Last week, Vermont Public television was the first to launch its digital service from Mt. Mansfield. Eventually, five television stations and two radio stations will use the high elevation summit to beam their programming over the region.

But at first, many people didn’t like the idea of new towers on Vermont’s tallest peak. Peter Martin:

(Martin) “Early on, when there was a controversy, there were folks who thought, `well we should take all these facilities off Mt. Mansfield.’ So we looked at those options, and there are off-mountain options. But they involve really big towers on undeveloped mountains.”

(Dillon) Howard Dean was governor at the time. He asked the broadcasters to work with members of his Council of Environmental Advisors.

(Rose) “Well, there were hours and hours and hours and countless meetings leading up to the final plan that’s being implemented now.”

(Dillon) Ben Rose is director of the Green Mountain Club and served on Dean’s environmental council.

The solution that came out of those hours of meetings was for broadcasters to share three new towers. They are monopole construction, which have less visual impact than large lattice work structures that need guy wires for support.

But for several years – until 2009 – there will be six towers on the mountain. Then the three old towers will come down, including the massive WVNY structure that can be seen from miles away.

Rose says the overall look of the mountain will improve eventually.

(Rose) “We’ll have to see what people say. Generally we’re convinced that the end result will be an aesthetic improvement in the appearance of the ridgeline. In the short term it’s probably going to get a little worse before it gets better, because there will be more towers up there. But once the plan is finished some of the towers – including the largest one, will be gone.”

(Dillon) And after the new towers are finished, hikers will one again be able to visit the nose area of Mt. Mansfield. Rose says the new construction is a worthwhile compromise, even though 28 acres on the summit are given over to broadcasting.

(Rose) “I think we do have that 28 acres as a sacrifice zone. And I think if we can have something reasonable within the 28 acres, that’s preferable to clearing the ridgeline of Mansfield but having alternative broadcasting facilities popping upon other ridgelines.”

(Dillon) Near the summit, a heavy mist has rolled in. The riggers working high up on the towers disappear in the blanket of fog.

The place still looks very much like a work in progress. But broadcasts of the new digital signals are expected to begin later this fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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