It’s been a little more than three months since Bruce Swail has been at the helm of GatesAir, one of the world’s leading transmitter vendors, working closely with radio and television broadcasters on all-things focused on bringing a clean, quality signal to consumers.
In that time, it is fair to say that Swail has jumped head-first into an industry provider serving an industry at the cusp of massive change. In this exclusive interview with RBR+TVBR‘s WEEKLY TECH UPDATE, Swail gives us a glimpse into what’s tops in his world, and what the radio and TV industry’s C-Suite should keep their eyes on in 2018.
Speaking from GatesAir’s Mason, OH headquarters, Swail has quickly absorbed a lot of knowledge regarding GatesAir’s biggest client needs — and has actively responded. First and foremost, to the surprise of few in the industry, the biggest topic of conversation — and business focus — for Gates as Q4 rolls ahead is the “repack opportunity.”
“The biggest announcement is that the first tranche of funding to auction participants has been released,” Swail notes.
The Incentive Auction Task Force and the Media Bureau on Oct. 16 affirmed the initial allocation of $1 billion in the TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund.
The funds are the first designed to reimburse eligible full power and Class A broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) for expenses related to the construction of station facilities on reassigned channels.
The Task Force and the Media Bureau believe the initial $1 billion “will be sufficient to meet anticipated near-term expenditures.”
Swail is already pleased with the disbursement. “We’re already seeing the first results of that announcement,” he says.
With money in hand, customers are more urgently acting to get their ducks in a row and follow the 39-month repack schedule as closely as possible. “The floodgates are really opening,” Swail says.
The GatesAir team is ready. “We’ve been preparing a long time for the repack, and we have been optimizing our Quincy, Ill., production facility for this. It’s Game Time here for us.”
To accommodate a flood of repack-focused client needs, much of the company’s efforts are titling toward domestic TV. Much of those efforts started in earnest before Swail’s arrival, when GatesAir’s CEO was running another private equity-held telecom company in Mt. Laurel, N.J.—Ulticom Inc.
“Those efforts are part of a refresh of our product line,” Swail says. “We’re now in the final stages of product engineering.”
As the volume production transition is taking place, the GatesAir team is turning its attention to the operational side of the business. “The repack is a major undertaking,” Swail says. “There are several hundred transmitters to be built.”
There’s also the need for retooling the production footprint, aligning more to a “pipelined high volume” focus.
REMEMBERING RADIO’S NEEDS
While the TV industry’s repack is No. 1 among GatesAir’s business priorities, there are still important needs for its radio consumers. This includes the “run-rate business in AM/FM transmitters,” which Swail says can run in parallel with TV industry repack demands.
Then, there are the newest product rollouts for the radio industry that have captured the industry’s attention.
First and foremost for GatesAir is its IBC2017 award-winning Intraplex intelligent IP networking and synchronization solution. A “unique product,” says Swail, Intraplex allows radio stations on the same frequency to greatly reduce co-channel interference.
The latest stations to use Intraplex are Cal State Northridge noncomm KCSN-FM 88.5 in Northridge, Calif., and new simulcast partner KSBR-FM 88.5 in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Prior to their recently forged simulcast agreement, KCSN’s signal was limited by KSBR, based in far southern Orange County.
The transition to a single-frequency network (SFN) with Intraplex IP networking brought the two stations together into a unified operation, solving the problem of interference as listeners traveled between the El Toro Y and West Los Angeles on the San Diego Freeway.
Michael Worrall, technical director and chief engineer at KCSN, said, “We wanted to utilize the best, state-of-the-art products to help overcome the obstacles that have historically hindered SFNs, so we consulted with some of the best minds in the business at GatesAir and elsewhere to find the right technical solution.”
Those consultations steered KCSN toward an SFN architecture that provided a seamless transition between transmitters as people travelled through the region. The complete system brings three transmitters—KSBR, KCSN’s main San Fernando Valley transmitter, and KCSN’s Beverly Hills booster —together using an Intraplex IP Link MPXp codec with integrated Intraplex SynchroCast technology to simulcast and time-lock the signals. This technique ensures that the three overlapping transmitters operating on the same frequency, and avoid interference with each other while broadening overall signal coverage.
Worrall migrated from a T1 architecture to IP based on several new efficiencies that the IP Link MPXp brought to the surface, including support for a transparent AES192 digital multiplex composite signal. The migration from T1 to IP has also saved the operation about $1,700 each month, which uses a very wide-bandwidth, private Ethernet service from AT&T to accommodate all signal networking, Worrall noted.
“The MPXp allows us to originate the baseband signal at our Northridge studios, and duplicate that signal within the codec, maintaining strict control of signal levels and phase across the network,” he said.
A LIQUID-COOLED ECO-FRIENDLY PRODUCT
GatesAir has also gained headlines in recent months for its environmentally friendly liquid-cooled FM product.
In early 2016, Cox Media Group‘s Alternative WSUN-FM 97.1 in Tampa became the first station to use a GatesAir Flexiva FLX liquid-cooled solid-state transmitter. In February 2017, WHPT-FM 102.5 “The Bone,” a Sarasota-licensed clustermate with a Hot Talk format targeting the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater market, added the Flexiva transmitter, too, using what GatesAir calls its “high-efficiency liquid-cooled transmission technology.”
“We see a strong potential for ROI when it comes to liquid-cooled technology in FM radio,” said Roz Clark, Sr. Director/Engineering of Radio for Cox Media Group. “The capital investment, operational investment and electrical costs associated with moving heat around are reduced, as liquid can cool transistors far more effectively with air. We will pay a little more up front if there a realistic payback period that also reduces our carbon footprint.”
Cox Media Group partially influenced GatesAir to develop the FLX solid-state line, given the success of liquid-cooling in TV transmission technology, and less successful efforts to liquid-cool FM tube transmitters due to the increasing challenges of working with tubes.
The most recent station to take on the Flexiva transmitter is Cumulus Media Hot AC WEBE-FM 107.9 in Bridgeport, Conn. It was deployed, interestingly, at a facility co-located with a power plant.
“The product reduces cooling loads and thereby cooling costs,” Swail says.
Interest in Flexiva has been global in nature, and in early October GatesAir partnered with Brazilian firm Foccus Digital to upgrade the over-the-air broadcast infrastructure for Sao Paolo region radio network Sistema Clube. Using GatesAir liquid and air-cooled transmitters to power single-frequency networks, the project upgrades existing ISDB-Tb digital TV infrastructure and expands FM coverage, improving signal quality and integrity across nearly 200 square miles.
The international experience is a plus for GatesAir, which has seen considerable growth activity for both TV and radio in Africa. Business in Nigeria and Ethiopia is particularly robust at the present time. This greatly pleases Swail.
“It is not so much the technology that we are bring to a very challenged part of the world, but that we are effecting societal change by bringing in modern communication,” he says. “It is awe-inspiring. A digital TV system in Nigeria for them to see more of the world, and get their World Cup soccer, truly helps people move forward and be part of the global community. Some are putting up great personal commitments to make this happen.”
A TOUCH OF RESILIENCY
With a well-attended and successful IBC2017 in Amsterdam now in the books, Swail is proud to note that — based on the atmosphere and business conducted at the event — the broadcast media industry remains “strong and vibrant.”
He says, “It’s interesting how these things evolve. The resiliency of broadcast media is a story. Perhaps broadcast TV wasn’t in vogue when cable first came to be, but with the OTT phenomenon it seems to be on the incline.”
Increased consumption of over-the-air TV is a good thing for broadcasters, Swail says.
That, of course, is good news for GatesAir, too — not that the company doesn’t have plenty on its plate. In August, Raycom Media partnered with GatesAir to provide transmitters and installation services made necessary from the TV spectrum repack.
Raycom Media’s deal with GatesAir covers 65 TV stations in 44 markets impacted by the repack. The agreement includes broadband transmitters, RF systems; and installation services from GatesAir. Similar pacts have been forged with Cordillera Communications and Heartland Broadcasting.
With nearly two decades of experience as a Motorola VP/GM, Swail is fully committed to ensuring that all GatesAir clients are taken care of.
Up next: Working with radio on the repack. It’s something that few in FM radio have urgently tackled.
Swail will be sure that his team ensures there are neither surprises for radio broadcasting companies, nor hefty bills from last-minute measures designed to keep the station from temporarily going off the air — or worse.