Cold War Relic, ATT long lines microwave site Kingston, NY

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, all long-distance communication in the US was handled by one company, AT&T. There was no other company that could transmit data over medium to long distances. The breadth and scope of their communications network are not understood by most people these days. Most people know that AT&T handled long-distance telephone calls for the Bell Telephone System until the Bell breakup in 1984. However, AT&T did a lot more than long-distance phone.

For example, if you watched the network news or network TV show anytime before 1980, it was likely brought to you via AT&T microwave system, known as AT&T long lines. Listen to the news on the radio, same deal. Before the widespread use of communication satellites and fiber optics, the AT&T microwave relay network was the only way to get various types of electronic media signals from one place to another.

Beginning in the late 1980s, competing local and long-distance telephone companies began installing fiber optic cables between company offices. That coupled with the increased use of satellite systems for mass media video and audio delivery services made the huge AT&T microwave network obsolete. Some of the old microwave sites that are located in downtown areas have been reused by local phone companies and cell phone providers. Many of the rural sites now sit empty.

ATT long lines microwave site with towers
ATT long lines microwave site with towers

This is the former AT&T microwave relay site located near Kingston, NY. It is now owned by American Tower, Inc. There are two towers behind the building, only the tower on the right has a few active communications antennas on it.  The taller tower is 190 feet tall and was built in 1957.  The shorter tower is 120 feet tall and was built in 1961.  Both towers and everything on them were made by Western Electric, the same company that manufactured the telephone sets.  Chances are, Western Electric contracted the actual manufacture of equipment out to others, then billed AT&T, their parent company a markup.  Something that would make all MBAs proud.

Western electric 190 foot tower, built in 1957
Western electric 190-foot tower, built in 1957

This tower was built in 1957.  The structure and galvanizing are still in excellent condition.

The large antennas you see on the towers are microwave horn antennas. They are no longer in use. Several transmitters and receivers would have been connected to each one of these antennas by use of RF multiplexers. Each microwave transmitter/receiver would have had several data channels. Generally, this was C Band microwave equipment, so it was in the 4, 6,  and 8 GHz frequency range.

Western Electric KS-15676 microwave antenna
Western Electric KS-15676 microwave antenna

All of this telephone traffic was transmitted on digital data channels unencrypted. Many have argued that this allowed the government (most notably the NSA or National Security Agency) to intercept and listen to most domestic long-distance telephone calls within the US. There is a book called Puzzle palace by James Bamford if you are interested in NSA history. It was written more than 20 years ago, so it doesn’t really apply today, but it is an interesting look at what the government was up to.

The building itself is huge, the first floor is 16,000+ square feet and the second floor is 10,000+ square feet. Only about 1000 square feet of this space is actively being used.

I believe this building was built in the late 1940s or early 1950s, just as Kingston was growing into a major IBM manufacturing site. It has remnants of the ATT coaxial-based system that was used prior to microwaves.  The IBM buildings are located a few miles to the southeast of this location, they are another cold war relic for discussion later. The IBM buildings were a major computer research and development site in the 1950s until it closed in 1992. It was assumed that the Soviets had several spy satellites trying to steal secrets from the area, and the IBM facility was a primary nuclear target.

Blast baffle for generator cooling air intake
Blast baffle for generator cooling air intake

The microwave relay site has 12-inch re-enforced concrete walls. The ventilation air intakes have blast baffles to prevent a pressure wave (from a nuclear explosion) from blowing the ventilation equipment off of its mounts.

pnumatic actuator panel, seals all outside openings with steel blast doors
pneumatic actuator panel seals all outside openings with steel blast doors

All of the outside openings were able to be sealed with steal blast deflectors using a pneumatic control panel located in the control room. There was a five-minute timer, presumably to allow the HVAC units to be secured before the doors were closed. They were heavy gauge steel shutters designed to deflect the pressure wave of a nuclear explosion. Since this is an earlier building, it is likely that it is built to a 2 PSI pressure wave spec.  Newer buildings were built to 20 or even 50 PSI.  This microwave relay site would not have withstood a direct hit from a nuclear warhead, especially the higher-yield warheads that came later on.

Water chillers for HVAC system
Water chillers for HVAC system

There were three large water chillers to provide cooling to the HVAC units. Since this was the 1950’s all of the electronic equipment would have had tubes, which would have generated a lot of heat while operating. There were two loops in the HVAC system. The refrigerant loop, which ran between these units and the huge condensers on the second-floor roof, and the chilled water loop which ran between these units and the air handlers located in various parts of the building.

There is a bomb shelter in the basement. I found a couple of olive drab cans of civil defense water laying around. The lights were not working at the bottom of the stairs, so I chose not to go into the bomb shelter itself.

Stairs going down to the bomb shelter
Stairs going down to the bomb shelter

“Okay everybody, the missiles are on their way, so let’s head down these stairs and pray”

There were two diesel generators, one was 325 KW which could run the entire building. The other was a 200 KW which could run the critical building functions. The fuel storage consisted of two 10,000-gallon tanks buried in the ground outside. Each steel fuel tank had a cathodic protection circuit. Basically, a small negative electrical current was passed to the steel tank to keep it from rusting. Apparently, it worked because when the tanks were removed in 2000 after 45 years in the ground, the primer was still on the outside of the tank.

Electrical switch gear, part of power company sub-station
Electrical switch gear, part of power company sub-station

The building has its own power substation. The electricity from the utility company comes off the pole at 13,800 volts and goes to a large step-down transformer on a pad outside. From there 480 volts is fed to this switch panel, where it is routed to motors loads or other step-down transformers within the building.

Frame room floor, equipment removed
Frame room floor, equipment removed

On the main floor, there were rows and rows of wire terminal equipment, microwave transmitters, receivers, and data and RF multiplexers in racks. The room in the above picture is about 10,000 square feet, there is another 6,000 square feet beyond the plastic heat barrier. This microwave gear received and transmitted data from Albany and Germantown to the north; Poughkeepsie, Putnam Valley, Ellenville, and Spring Valley to the south. All of that equipment is gone now, replaced by empty space.

Now the whole place is a little creepy.

There are about 500 copper wire pairs of telephone cables that came into various parts of the building to carry the DS-1 and DS-3 circuits that interfaced with the TELCO office in Kingston.

All in all, this was a serious building, no expense was spared in the construction and equipment outfitting.  The entire building is shielded with copper mesh screens embedded in the concrete walls.  There were redundant systems on top of redundant systems, something that you do not see these days, even in government buildings such as emergency operation centers (EOCs) and 911 call centers.

The FCC is studying the state of Journalism

The FCC has drafted a Notification of Inquiry (NOI) examining the state of media journalism in America. Why?  No harm can come from this, right?  Let us read a little further:

A major issue the report details is the possibility of “behavioral rules” for broadcasters, according to the official. Behavioral rules might include guidelines that broadcasts serve the public interest.

Bringing back Cold War-era guidelines mandating that broadcasters do “non-entertainment” programming is another idea being examined, according to the official.


Doh! Now that most radio stations have fired their news departments, the government wants news.  Frankly, I think it is a dumb idea.  The hands of time can’t be turned back so there is no use trying.

There are radio stations out there that provide good local and national news, most NPR stations for example.  There are also a few commercial stations still doing it.  Those that can make money on it will and that is the way it should be.

I listen to the local NPR station’s (WAMC) program called “The Media Project.”  It is an interesting show where a Television news anchor, a local newspaper editor and the radio station president talk about media issues.  Often, it turns into a lament about how the internet news sources are cutting into their own audience because the internet is “free.”  The newspaper editor in particular often feels that he is shouldering the burden (by paying the reporter’s salaries) of gathering the news and the free-loading internet people who write blogs, like this one, merely leach off of the newspaper’s hard work.  And he has a point.

So charge for it.  I’d pay a $3-5 per month fee to have full online access to a good local paper.  I think many other people would too.  When they started giving away their content is when they got into trouble and that is their own fault.  This would be a good formula:

  1. Media outlets (newspapers, TV stations, Radio stations, Cable companies, etc) get together to come up with a policy for online content.
  2. A good example would be, limited free access to national stories and front page items and advertisements.  Charge a nominal subscription fee for locally generated content and full access.  Charge a higher fee for content without advertising (except classifieds).
  3. Create a website that is laid out like a newspaper.  Keep all the sections the same and make it very easy to navigate around in.

Some newspapers, like the New York Times, are already doing things like this.  The reality is that online media is here to stay.  Those legacy media outlets that want to survive are going to have to figure out a way to compete and make money online.

Tower down

You know it is going to be a bad day when:

a farmer mowing grass took a wrong turn on June 16, KFEQ AM lost a guy wire and eventually one of its four towers came toppling down

From Above Ground Level magazine.

Is hiring the farmer down the road to come and mow the AM field a smart thing to do?  It depends, I suppose, on whether or not your towers will be standing afterward.  Hopefully, the guy had some insurance, if not then the station is basically screwed.  The article did not mention that, although it did state that “The station is weighing its options,” Which does not sound good.

The good news is at least they were doing the maintenance.  Most AM stations these days don’t even bother to mow the fields.  Look at this picture:

Tall grass at an AM transmitter site.  Owner says don't cut it.
Tall grass at an AM transmitter site. Owner says don’t cut it.

It is not that I don’t want the grass cut, I do.  However, I am not going to pay for it out of my own pocket, that is ridiculous.  So, it grows.

Summer thunderstorms and grounding

Most (if not all) radio engineers cringe when they hear a clap of thunder.  Then the waiting begins.  What are we waiting for?  The cellphone to start ringing, of course.  Over the twenty or so years I have been doing this, I have learned a few things.  One of them is you cannot overground something.

That being said, you can, of course, ground something improperly.

The worst areas we have for lightning damage are the Gainesville/Pensacola markets.  Those places are in the lightning capital of the US.  Time was our class C FM station was getting knocked off a couple of times a month.

US thunderstorm Days map
US Thunderstorm Days map

There is hope.  When we upgraded the stations and installed new transmitters in 2004 I insisted that the tower and building be properly grounded.  I even got into an argument with the CFO about the “mission creep” as he put it.  Never mind that I put $20K in the initial work specification for grounding.

There are a couple of strategies to use when dealing with lightning at transmitter sites:

  1. Grounding:  First, foremost, and always.  Grounding should consist of multiple ground rods driven as deeply into the earth as possible.  At the Trenton Florida transmitter site, we used 20-foot-long ground rods driven in 20 feet apart all the way around the building and in five 60-foot spokes around the tower.  All of these ground rods and tower bases were bonded with #2 solid copper wire CAD (exothermically) welded to the ground rods.  All turns were kept to a large diameter radius to keep inductance down.   When lightning strikes the tower, this creates a large electron sink to dissipate the strike energy into.
  2. Bonding:  All equipment cabinets, racks, and everything metal is bonded together and to the same ground point presented by the grounding system.  When lightning strikes, often the ground cannot dissipate the energy fast enough.  When this happens, the entire ground area around the tower gets charged up.  Current will only flow down a less resistive path.  If everything is bonded together, the potential between any piece of equipment or component is the same, even if that potential is +10,000 volts.  No flow of current means no damage.
  3. The transmitter building is located away from the tower.  At almost every FM and TV transmitter site I have visited, the building is right smack at the tower base.  By moving the building away about 100 feet or so, the EMP from the tower strike has dissipated (log function) significantly before it passes through the transmitter building.  It is a little more expensive to install due to the added transmission line lengths and losses, however, it works.

I have been at the Trenton Florida transmitter site when lightning struck the tower.  The result, not even a transmitter overload.  Nothing was noticed on the air, no damage was sustained by any equipment.  For the last five years, there has been no off-air time due to lightning damage at this site.

Studio building with lightning rod, Gainesville, Florida
Studio building with lightning rod, Gainesville, Florida

The studio site has a similar story.  We built a new studio building in 2005, there is a 100-foot monopole that holds the STL antennas.  You know that it gets hit during a storm.  I remember the manager and IT guy from Pensacola commenting about how nice the new SAS Rubicon consoles were.  Both of them also said that they wouldn’t last through the first summer because of lightning damage.  Four years later, not a single incident of damage to the consoles, computers, or anything else in the building because we grounded everything as I described above.

Proper planning and installation pays off.