The High-Stakes, High-Danger Television Tower Chore

Article excerpt

In Austin, construction had to be halted for several months during the nesting season of the golden-cheeked warbler.

In Dallas, a construction accident killed three people because workers had not been properly trained.

And in New York, even the city's tallest skyscrapers may not be up to the task. For the few companies in the business of building television towers, the prospect of bizarre complications, bureaucratic delays and even fatal mistakes only serve to compound the extraordinary challenge now facing them. Under a federally mandated schedule to usher in digital high-definition television -- a timetable that the construction industry says may be impossible to meet -- the tower builders are embarking on a crash program across the country to build hundreds of new television towers, at heights up to 2,049 feet, taller than the world's tallest buildings. The trouble is, across the United States only about a half-dozen crews have the experience and training to put up these towers that can reach nearly a half-mile into the sky. Together, all of the nation's tower building teams may be able to put up as many as 20 towers a year. But each year for the next four or five years, the broadcast industry is going to call on them to build 100 or more. Broadcasters and tower builders call it a Sisyphean mission. And if they do not succeed, many of the new digital stations will be years late going on the air. "I don't see how we can get it done," said J.C. Kline, president of Kline Towers, one of only three companies in the United States that build television towers. "We just don't have the capacity for this." Scores of engineers, politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats spent more than a decade in a tortured, government-run program to devise the standard for the new generation of television. Now that the standard is set, and the Federal Communications Commission has lent every television station a second channel for the transition to this new service, 1,600 stations have to find places for the antennas that will beam the new programming to their viewers. Nearly all of them had chosen to defer even thinking about this problem until now, in part because a new tower costs at least $1,000 a foot, or $2 million for a 2,000-foot structure. Digital television does not demand a tower any different from what conventional broadcasting requires. So in many cases, existing towers may suffice. But as many as one-third of the nation's television stations may have to put up new towers because their existing ones are loaded to capacity with antennas for television and radio stations, cellular phone providers and other communications systems. For these fully loaded towers, even one more antenna -- along with up to 2,000 feet of fat copper cable leading to it -- would add more weight than the tower could bear. Different stations have different height requirements for their towers, depending on terrain and the distance to the city's farthest suburbs. The higher the tower, the farther the signal's reach. But 2,049 feet is the tallest tower allowed by federal law. The National Association of Broadcasters and Tom Vaughan, an industry consultant who specializes in towers, say their recent surveys of the nation's television stations indicate that 500 to 700 of them will need new towers. And while some broadcast executives think those numbers may be a bit too high, most of the stations have hired engineering firms to determine whether their existing towers can be reinforced or modified or whether entirely new structures are necessary. But whatever the final number of new towers turns out to be, broadcast executives know the sheer national scope of the task will be daunting. "It's something the world has never had to face up to before," said Bob O. Niles, who is in charge of the tower-building program for ABC, which owns 10 stations and expects to erect new spires for two of them. …