This week, the state of Maine will get another economic boost from the official ribbon-cutting and grand opening of a 33,000-square foot manufacturing facility in the city of Lewiston. The launch of the facility will also be good news for TV broadcasting companies in the midst of a post-FCC spectrum auction repack process.
With the new facility ready to go, new antenna systems for the repack process — with ATSC 3.0 needs quickly emerging for broadcast TV owners — are all set to ship for Dielectric.
It’s a momentous occasion for a company that’s morphed in many ways in recent years. For VP/GM Keith Pelletier, the growth is testament to the company’s strengths in customer service and working with each client to suit their needs. This could explain Dielectric’s impressive market share against some 10 competitors.
Known for its beautiful Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and, to others, the top-notch Baxter Brewing Company, Lewiston is a placid city of some 36,500 people that is Maine’s second-largest municipality, behind Portland.
It is here that Dielectric is expanding its operations — growth fueled by the repack process, which will see some 1,000 TV stations swap signals as wireless telecom players snatch up valuable spectrum to build out their data capacitates.
The facility officially opens Dec. 6, with planning officially announced in early August. The operation is already churning out product — and is now the hub of Dielectric’s entire line of UHF main and auxiliary television antennas.
Simply put, without the Lewiston facility, Dielectric — based 40 minutes south in the town of Raymond — would be in a bind, and behind, on fulfilling orders.
“Typically in Raymond we can produce six to eight antennas,” Pelletier says. “But we are going to have to produce on a scale of 20 to 30 per month, and thus we need to add scale.”
To say that there’s considerable demand for Dielectric’s services is a bit of an understatement.
“Since the gun when off and everybody started looking at proposals for technical antennas, we have received just about 1,900 requests for technical proposals,” Pelletier says, noting that Dielectric representatives will work with each company by going through the design process and reviewing specifications particular to that broadcast TV operator.
“From that, we have shipped and/or have in house 189 antennas,” Pelletier notes.
Once the entire repack process is complete, Pelletier envisions market dominance, and isn’t shy to offer his projection.
“We anticipate that once everything is repacked that Dielectric will have 80% market share,” he predicts.
How has Dielectric been able to achieve such a strong position in the marketplace? Pelletier says the company did what it needed to do to gear up and handle the expected jump in demand for product.
He adds, “There are three big players out there, and 10 choices. But when we did the digital transition in the early 2000s, we had 70% market share.”
Customer retention, he says, has also come from having a customer-focused customer service team and having a variety of antennas available, adapting to customer needs rather than taking a “one size fits all” tact to client services.
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
In June 2013, Dielectric was sold to Sinclair Broadcast Group by SPX Corporation “for an immaterial and leverage neutral purchase price.”
At the time, then-Sinclair President/CEO David Smith called the acquisition “a logical choice given our in-house RF engineering expertise and our ownership of Acrodyne Services, which installs and services broadcast transmitters and mobile DTV upgrades.”
Smith also affirmed that Dielectric would be there to support a spectrum repack. Some 4 1/2 years later, Pelletier is leading the effort — and pleased to be associated with Sinclair, which has taken a significant role in the rollout of next-gen TV (ATSC 3.0).
He says, “When we started under the Sinclair umbrella in 2013, we were about 35 people. We are today just over 100 employees. There is demand for numerous positions that are open. Eventually we look to have between 150 and 160 people, with 55 positions in Lewiston. It’s good for the local economy, and it’s giving the employee base in the area a little bit of a boost with some highly technical jobs — from engineering to assembly.”
In Lewiston, Manufacturing Manager Mike Spugnardi is overseeing the daily operations.
With Democrats on Capitol Hill suspicious of Sinclair, primarily for its desire to merge with Tribune Media and push for next-gen TV and how the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai has purportedly worked to change rules favoring the company, one may ask just how involved Sinclair is with Dielectric.
The answer: They’re passive owners, and that pleases Pelletier.
“When we were owned by SPX, it was a little challenging, because they didn’t understand our industry, and broadcast, in general,” he notes. “They were bottom-line focused. Having Sinclair there is a big sigh of relief. They understand the market. They are in the market. They are a lot more patient in terms of what we are going to do for them on an ongoing revenue basis.”
Pelletier continues, “They’ve stepped aside and are letting me run the business. I can make projections and get with my sales team, and as long as I am hitting my commitments and get some additional wins out there. As long as I am sticking to my story, they are leaving us alone. They are excited for us to go for this repack, but they are not micromanaging us at any level.”
Dielectric celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. And, it’s busier than ever. “We’re in a window now where in the next three to six weeks we should see significant orders come through the door,” Pelletier says.
He adds that there is somewhat of a challenge in that each broadcasting group is in a different stage of the repack process. “Some groups are waiting for FCC approval before giving us significant orders, thanks to pattern protection or ERP modifications. Other broadcasters have stated that they are not going to go through the maximization phases, and we are going to ship straight to them.”
As part of the repack work, Dielectric is moving forward with TV broadcasters’ ATSC 3.0 preparation. “Everything that we are shipping out for the repack will be ATSC 3.0-rated as well,” Pelletier says. “We’re also ready for designs and deployment of multicultural SFN systems (single frequency networks) for ATSC 3.0.”
That’s a big story that hasn’t been fully told, as TV broadcasters will need to think about cell towers in outlying areas to give a robust signal to mobile products such as cell phones and laptops.
Phoenix has been designated as a “model market” by the parties involved with the roll out of ATSC 3.0. The Valley of the Sun is known for many sights — including South Mountain, where its gaggle of blinking red lights can be seen for miles around.
While broadcast TV stations shifting to ATSC 3.0 will continue to use the towers atop South Mountain as they do today, TV operations will need to use “more of a cell phone topology,” says Pelletier, in getting their signal to hand-held devices.
“There will be more sites in your coverage area, and you’re still have your main stick supplying much of that signal saturation,” Pelletier notes.
In Phoenix, each area will be analysed based on population, with an average 10-12 sites per large market, and perhaps 4 in a smaller market. “The idea is that the signal is robust enough signal for a mobile device.”
For now, however, the focus is on the repack. Once the ribbon is cut and the formalities on Dec. 6 fade, the manufacture and shipping goes into full throttle.
Pelletier and his team are confident they’re up to meeting all deadlines and ensuring the repack process doesn’t go off track.