MERRILLVILLE – Lakeshore Public Media announced Thursday it was finally able to return to full power with the installation and certification of its new digital transmitter, restoring Lakeshore PBS broadcast service to the Chicagoland market.
“We are proud to announce a resumption of full broadcast service,” said James Muhammad, president and CEO of Lakeshore Public Media. “It has been an ordeal but we are now back, and we should be better than ever.”
A crew from Sky Tower LLC of Oklahoma City made the almost 1000-foot climb in late March to repair a damaged transmission line. With the line work repaired, it took another eight weeks before the transmitter manufacturer was available to complete the installation and certify it for broadcast, meeting requirements of the FCC.
Over the last six months, Lakeshore PBS has committed almost $400,000 in equipment and repairs, removing the old transmitter and accompanying equipment, and purchasing a new solid-state transmitter, Vice President of TV Operations Matt Franklin said. The new system should eliminate single points of failure, operate on much less power and will be ATSC 3.0 ready, so it will be equipped for the next generation of broadcasting.
“It takes a large investment in capital to operate a TV station, and this incident shows how challenging it is,” he said. “Now that our full power transmitter is tested and certified, Lakeshore PBS is fully operational and better prepared to serve our communities for years to come.”
Initially, a violent storm damaged the transmitter on July 16, 2018, knocking the station off the air. After testing and repeated attempts to repair the system, it was determined the 15-year-old transmitter was damaged beyond repair.
TV transmitters were in high demand as stations across the country had orders in for new equipment due to the FCC spectrum auction and station repacks. A temporary low-power transmitter was delivered to the Cedar Lake site on Aug. 3, but a communication error kept the new transmitter from working with the current system.
The next day, the lead engineer worked with the manufacturer to resolve the error, but multiple faults were discovered in the transmission lines, preventing the temporary transmitter from operating properly. After further investigation, damage was found which was believed to have been caused by vandalism that occurred overnight on Aug. 3.
Franklin described the challenge as a worst-case scenario that was more than a simple supply-and-demand issue. While Lakeshore PBS was initially unaffected by the repack, the needed repair was delayed by the lack of certified technicians available to do the work on their 990-foot structure.
“We reached out to vendors from across the Midwest and beyond to make the tower climb and do the repair,” Franklin said. “We knew that tower crews would be hard to come by, but we never realized how difficult it would be. The spectrum repack had tower crews tied up for months and months.”
The station worked through the fall to find an available crew that was licensed to work on a tower of that height. “We had two different crews scheduled to climb and do the work, one in early September and another the last half of the month,” Franklin said. The small windows of availability would close when high winds or threatening weather affected the climbs. “Both crews canceled days before they were to do the work, putting us in a hole once again.”
Eventually, a crew scheduled to work in Milwaukee had a last-minute opening on Oct. 1, leading to the first repair. “We were all so excited to hear our engineer say that a tower crew was on site and climbing,” Muhammad said. “The whole station started to cheer.”
The public television station continued to work to bring its full power broadcast transmitter up, but when cold weather hit in November, a new issue developed when the damaged line near the top allowed water in the line, which eventually froze. The ice caused the signal to be reflected back, keeping it from broadcasting.
Over the winter, the operations team went back to the phones to try and find a certified crew able to climb the structure. Almost every company turned down the work due to the bitter weather or with being overscheduled with repack work.
Sky Tower eventually responded with availability. The company initially thought they could perform the repair the week of Feb. 15 on the way back from a job in Alabama, but due to weather and work complications, it was moved to end of March.
“Through all of this, we heard from many viewers and members during our outage, letting us know that they missed their programming and their PBS station,” Muhammad said. “We want them to know that we truly apologize for the length of this outage. It has been something that we never could have believed was possible.”