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Re-pack Causes Temporary Inconvenience for Long-term Benefits

Transmitters for SCETV and SC Public Radio.
Transmitters for SCETV and SC Public Radio.

The short interruptions that some listeners of both commercial and public radio stations have experienced to broadcasts in the past couple of months are actually the sound of progress, according to ETV Vice President of Technology and Facilities Mark Jahnke.

It's a process called repacking, and it was brought about by the increasing demand for broadband services for digital devices like cell phones.  In order to get faster connections through the wireless carriers, more space on the frequency spectrum was needed, and these digital device signals operate on the exact same frequencies as television signals, said Jahnke.  So in order to get more room for wireless communications, the Federal Communications Commission required nearly every TV station in the country to move, squeezing them into the lower part of the spectrum to free the upper space for more broadband.

"So as they shrunk us into the smaller spectrum, all that extra spectrum they sold off," said Jahnke.  "And that's where the Verizons, the AT & Ts, the Comcasts, the Googles were able to put bids on that wireless spectrum, and the proceeds actually got to go back to the televisions stations."

And those proceeds were needed to reimburse the stations for the expenses of moving to another frequency.  That meant buying new transmitters, an expensive proposition, but a boon to stations whose transmitters were getting older and in need of replacement, anyway.  

ETV engineer Hap Griffin said the bandwidth still has to be managed carefully, because it is finite.  "It's like land, you never get any more of it made. So you just have to keep repurposing what's there.  I'm sure that as wireless data becomes even more ubiquitous than it is, that more and more of the spectrum will be repurposed, probably (for) things we can't even foresee right now."

Griffin added that viewers on cable and satellite services will not notice the frequency changes because the cable and satellite services will take care of it.  Those who receive television over the air will have to make an easy adjustment when they notice the station is no longer on its former frequency, he said.  "All you have to do is go into the menu of  your TV and just do what we call re-scan.  It'll search through all the channels, find us and put it into memory, and you'll be back as good as new."  Help with the re-scan is available for those who need it at www.myscetv.org, he said. 

Back to the radio interference:  the repack actually only affects TV stations, including all 10 in ETV's statewide network.  Most have been switched over, with others to follow this year.  But some radio stations, including some in the South Carolina Public Radio network, have been, and will be, temporarily affected because they share the same towers with the affected television stations. 

"We've had to do a lot of antenna changes and transmission line changes," said Jahnke, and that means men climbing the high metal towers around the state.  "And because we have people on the tower, they can't have the radio transmissions going.  That high power output of the radio frequencies could affect them.  It could actually harm their bodies.  So we have to go to low power or sometimes we have to shut it off completely just to make sure that everybody's safe." 

The interference has been and will be only temporary, usually just for a couple of weeks, and does not affect the streamed signal over scpublicradio.org or apps.   

And there are benefits, Jahnke said.  "Right off the bat, we'll have the opportunity to broadcast in UHD, or 4K," meaning an improved, sharper picture.  "A lot of people can do that right now through online streaming, but when the new signal, called ATSC3.o, is broadcast, we will be able to do a 4K PBS broadcast over the air."

Improved emergency communications services is another benefit.  "In the new standard, the emergency alert can actually turn on your TV (if it's enabled by the viewer) and tell you there's something going on that you need to be aware of."

In addition, the repack's new standard will allow TV stations to add other channels.  So ETV will be able to add other channels to the ones it already offers, which now includes ETV World, PBS Kids and the South Carolina Channel. 


WHMC Conway - May 1, 2020

WITV Charleston - July 3, 2020

WNTV Greenville - July 3, 2020

It will be necessary for off-the-air viewers to re-scan their TV sets at these times. 


WHMC Conway, 90.1 FM

WSCI Charleston, 89.3 FM

WEPR Greenville, 90.1 FM

The signals of these stations may be at low power or temporarily off the air while tower work is being done.  The apps and streaming over scpubicradio.org will not be affected.