The Relentless Drive to Consolidation

In this blog post about the NAB radio show, Paul McLane (Radio World editor) discusses the reduction of technical people in attendance at the conference.  Consolidation has brought about many changes in the broadcasting industry, engineering has not been immune to these changes.

Because of consolidation, engineering staffs have been reduced or completely replaced by contract engineering firms.  Since the Great Recession of 2008-09 this trend has picked up speed.  Expect it to continue to the point where large broadcasting companies employ one engineering staff administrator at the top, several regional engineering supervisors in the middle and the bulk of the work performed will be done by regional contract engineering firms.

There is no reason to expect the media consolidation process to stop any time soon.  It will continue in fits and starts depending on the congressional mood and the awareness or lack thereof of the general public.  The NAB itself seems bent on removing all ownership regulations and eventually, with enough money spent lobbying congress, they will get their way.   Thus, the majority of radio stations will be owned by one company, the majority of TV stations will be owned by another company and the majority of newspapers will be owned by a third.

There will be some exceptions to that scenario; public radio and TV, privately owned religious broadcasters and single station consolidation holdouts.  If funding for public radio and TV gets cut, which is very likely if the economy collapses further, they will be up for grabs too.

Cloud based network diagram
Cloud based network diagram

For the future of radio and radio engineering, I see the following trends developing:

  1. National formats will be introduced.  Clear Channel already does this somewhat with it’s talk radio formats.  Look for more standardization and national music formats for CHR, Country, Rock, Oldies, Nostalgia, etc.  These were previously called “Satellite Radio” formats but I am sure that somebody will dust of and repackage the idea as something else.  They will be somewhat like BBC Radio 1, where a single studio location is used with local markets having the ability to insert local commercials if needed.  Some “local” niche formats will still exist and major markets where the majority of the money is, will continue to have localized radio.
  2. Audio distribution will move further into the Audio Over IP realm using private WANs for larger facilities, public networks with VPN for smaller facilities.  AOIP consoles like the Wheatstone Vorsis and the Telos Axia will become the installation standard.  These consoles are remote controllable and interface directly with existing IP networks for audio distribution and control.  Satellite terminals will become backup distribution or become two way IP networked.
  3. Cloud based automation systems will evolve.  File and data storage will be moved to cloud base servers using a Content Distribution Network topology.  Peers and Nodes will be distributed around the country to facilitate backup and faster file serving.
  4. Continued movement of the technical operations into a corporate hierarchy.  Technical NOC (Network Operations Center) will include all facets of facility monitoring including transmitters, STL’s, automation systems, office file servers, and satellite receivers via IP networks.  The NOC operators will dispatch parts and technicians to the sites of equipment failures as needed.
  5. Regional contract engineering and maintenance firms will replace most staff engineers in all but the largest markets.  Existing regional engineering firms will continue to grow or consolidate as demands for services rise.  Those firms will employ one or two RF engineers, several computer/IT engineers and many low level technicians.
The most important skill set for broadcast engineers in the coming five to ten year period will be IP networking.  Everything is moving in that direction and those that want to keep up will either learn or be left behind.

Bell System microwave relay system

This is a map of the AT&T microwave relay system as it was in 1960. It is interesting for several reasons.  First of all, before there were communications satellites, this is the way that data was transferred from one location to another.  That data would have been digitized and TDM encoded on a T-carrier, then loaded onto a microwave path.  TV networks had loops that transversed the country, distributing network video and audio to all the markets in the US.  The first transcontinental New York to San Francisco microwave route was established in 1951.  Through the fifties and sixties, the network was filled in across the US and Canada.

Radio networks had been using wired TELCO networks for program distribution for years, although they required far less bandwidth than TV.  This was during the time when network affiliation was vitally important to a station.  Radio networks provided news and other special event programming, as well as some long form shows which were an important source of information for the listeners.  Any network programming prior to 1980 or so would have been carried by this system.

It was not until the use of C and Ku band satellite services that networks could offer multiple channels of programming.  Now, entire radio formats could be programmed remotely and beamed into hundreds of stations across the country simultaneously.  That would have been far to expensive to implement over TELCO lines, as the line charges were based on mileage of the circuit.

Bell System microwave relay routes
Bell System microwave relay routes

Click for higher resolution.

This system included thousands of hardened microwave relay sites, each built to exacting specifications and fully redundant.  At the time, the long distance telephone system was an integral part of the US defense planning.  Sites were spaced 20-40 miles apart, depending on terrain.  In congested areas, like the northeast, area mountain tops are dotted with these sites today, mostly empty.  Most of these sites went off line in the late 1990’s as phone companies switched to fiber optic cables for telephone and data traffic.

American Tower, Inc. purchased most of these sites in bulk from AT&T in the year 2000.  Some sites are well positioned for Cellular Telephone, 3G and 4G wireless data services, plus other things like Media Flow and general use applications like FM broadcast and two way.  Many sites, however, do not meet any specific need and sit empty.  There was a large fire sale by American Tower in 2002 in which they unloaded about 1,900 of these sites as they were redundant.

I wrote a post titled Cold War Relic: ATT long lines site, Kingston,NY detailing one of these sites near me.  Keep in mind, there were thousands of these sites throughout the country.

 

 

TIA/EIA 568

Radio stations more and more revolve around networked computers.  Engineers need to understand computer networking, especially as it relates to audio distribution and playback.  Eventually, I see broadcast engineers being more computer science types rather than electrical engineering majors.

What I have found out about computer networking is this: it is not rocket science.  In fact, most of it is pretty easy.  Physical networking and cabling is similar to audio and TELOC cabling.  Automation computer servers themselves are not difficult to understand as most of them run on some type of windows program.  Other servers such as Apache for WWW and for FTP and streaming run on some type of LINUX OS.  LINUX is also not difficult to understand so long as one knows the right command line prompts.

The first part of understanding computers is networking.  Without a computer network, a computer is a glorified typewriter.  Almost every automation system and or digital editor requires some type of network.  Consoles and computers that use AOIP require well constructed networks in order to operate properly.  To that end; cabling choices, network interface devices such as switches and routers, patch panels and so forth need to be specified and installed with care.

Most often, it is the simple things that will trip an installer up.  The one area where I have found the most mistakes made is the pairs connection to various termination points.  There are two basic standards, TIA/EIA T568A and T568B.  Neither is better than the other, both are often identified on terminating devices such as jacks and patch panels.  The most important aspect to these standards for an installer is to pick one and stick with it.

TIA/EIA 568 color code
TIA/EIA 568 color code

When certifying networks, the most common problem I have encountered is crossed pairs.  Almost invariably, one end will be punched down with the A standard and the other with the B standard.  Jacks are particularly difficult, as the color coding stickers show both.  Many patch panels have a slide out, reversible card with is an either/or situation.  For some reason, I have stuck with the B standard and on any project I am managing, I get rid of all the A color codes I can find and tell the installers that B is the only acceptable termination standard.  That cuts down on a lot of errors and redos during certification.  That is good, it saves time and I hate redos.

Cat 5e wall jack set
Cat 5e wall jack set

You can see that this color code marking can lead to confusion.  I take a sharpie and cross out all the the A markings to avoid installation mistakes.

Incidentally, on any new network installation, Category 6 cable should be used.  As more and more data through put is required for network applications,  Category 6 Cabling has better performance specs and will likely have a longer service life than other cable.   It may be a little bit more expensive than Cat 5,  however, well worth the investment.  It would be a great mistake and waste of money to have to pull out the network and reinstall it in a few years because the cabling doesn’t have the required bandwidth.

Category 7 cabling is in the works.