Tower Construction Could Delay HDTV

Delays in tower construction could cause broadcasters in some big cities like New York and Chicago to miss their government-mandated May 1, 1999 deadline for initiating HDTV. The problem is this: The strength of terrestrially transmitted digital signals is dependent on the height of transmitting towers, and big-city broadcasters are having trouble finding the space to build them. "The rollout might be a little slower than anyone anticipated," said National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Chuck Sherman at the NAB's annual convention in Las Vegas.

Existing towers are already loaded to capacity, and the stepped-up push for HDTV has put enormous pressure on the high-tower construction industry, in which there are only a handful of skilled workers. As a result, workers are being recruited from the cell-phone tower business and are being put to work on high towers without sufficient training.

"I don't see how we can get it done," J.C. Kline, president of Kline Towers, told the New York Times' (and the Guide's) Joel Brinkley last year. Kline owns one of only three companies in the US that build television towers. "We just don't have the capacity for this," he said. Last year, three workers were killed in a tower-construction accident in Dallas. Two of them had previous experience only on short towers.

Mid-sized cities with more available real estate might be the first ones with operating HDTV transmitters. However, all terrestrial broadcasters could get scooped by satellite broadcasters, whose "footprints" cover all of North America.

At present, cable operators are free to choose whether or not to carry HDTV. Like major networks and big-city TV stations, however, they might be compelled to do so if they choose not to cooperate voluntarily with the new format's rollout. Bill Kennard, the Federal Communications Commission's new chairman, told NAB convention attendees last Tuesday that he is "watching the situation closely."