Lakeshore PBS back in business

April 1, 2019

MERRILLVILLE— WYIN Channel 56 is back on the air.

Lakeshore Public Media announced Thursday it was finally able to get its Lakeshore PBS TV signal back on the air on a low-power transmitter after finding a tower crew to perform needed work.

“We are proud to announce a resumption of broadcast service,” said James Muhammad, president and CEO of Lakeshore. “Testing is ongoing and we may have some more intermittent outages, but our hope is to be up to full power and operating at 100 percent very soon.”

A crew from Sky Tower LLC of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, made the almost 1,000-foot climb earlier this week to replace a 10-foot section of damaged transmission line near the very top of the tower, which had been blocking the public television station from broadcasting.

Initially, a violent storm damaged the transmitter in July 2018, knocking Lakeshore PBS off the air. After testing and repeated attempts to repair the existing system, it was determined the 15-year-old transmitter was damaged beyond repair. Lakeshore then moved forward with purchasing a new transmitter.

TV transmitters were in high demand as stations across the country ordered 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, 2018. Installation started that evening but was halted as a communication error kept the new transmitter from working with the current system. The next day, the lead engineer worked with the Quincy, Illinois, manufacturer to resolve that error.

But then multiple faults were discovered in transmission lines, preventing the temporary transmitter from operating properly. The damage was believed to have been caused by vandalism.

Vice President of TV Operations Matt Franklin described the challenge as a worst-case scenario that was more than a simple supply and demand issue. While Lakeshore was initially unaffected by the repack, the needed repair was delayed by the lack of certified technicians available.

“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 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 crew availability would close when high winds or threatening weather affected 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 station continued to work to bring its full power broadcast transmitter up, but when cold weather hit in November, a new issue developed – 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 engineering team tried to find a certified tower crew able to climb the structure. Almost every company turned down the work due to bitter cold or being overscheduled.

Sky Tower eventually responded and planned to perform the repair the week of Feb. 15, but due to weather and work complications, it was moved to the second week in 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.”

Over the last six months, Lakeshore has committed more than $400,000 to equipment and repairs, Franklin said, removing the old transmitter and accompanying equipment, and purchasing a new solid-state transmitter. Once certified, the system should eliminate single points of failure, operate on much less power, and 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,” Franklin said. “Once our full power transmitter is tested and certified, Lakeshore PBS will be fully operational and better prepared to serve our communities for years to come.”

—From staff reports