This fall, Montana PBS will move down the digital dial in the Flathead. Channel 46 in Kalispell will go dark, and the station’s broadcast will pick up on channel 15. It’s all part of a nationwide reorganization of television frequencies designed to free up the airwaves for cell phones and other wireless devices.
Dean Lawver, director of technology at Montana PBS, says rumblings of the change began several years ago. Clarity arrived in March 2017 when the Federal Communications Commission closed the bidding on a massive spectrum auction. Across the country, every channel above 36 was reallocated to private buyers including Comcast, Dish and T-Mobile. The auction raised $19.8 billion, roughly $10 billion of which was set aside to reimburse stations for the cost of moving to lower channels.
“While today marks a major milestone, the work is far from over,” National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith said in a post-auction statement. “Now the FCC and the broadcast industry face the unprecedented task of moving almost a thousand TV stations — far more than originally anticipated — to new channels in very tight time frames.”
Factoring in equipment upgrades and labor costs, Lawver estimates the switch to channel 15 for Kalispell’s KUKL-TV will cost as much as $100,000. The post-auction transition also means Montana PBS will have to replace its Butte- and Helena-based “translators,” which pick up the station’s primary signal and extend its reach. Those replacements will cost up to $120,000 each, Lawver says. The station is fortunate in that T-Mobile is picking up the tab for all PBS translator changes nationwide. Others weren’t so lucky.
“There’s very active and robust translator groups in the state that are impacted without any means to recoup their losses,” Lawver says. “This channel 15 move lands right in the middle of a block of translator frequencies that have been operating in the Kalispell area for many years … We bump them out, so they have to go through all the motions of finding new channels.”
While the transition calls for a lot of work on the part of broadcasters, viewers will sail through with relative ease. All they’ll have to do, says Aaron Pruitt, director and general manager for Montana PBS, is rescan for the new channels when the time comes. The FCC’s schedule calls for Montana PBS to start testing on the new channel in mid-September and complete the switch by Nov. 30.
“I think our communications will probably happen really close to when the actual transition happens, just to avoid confusion,” Pruitt says. “And, to be honest, to allow us some flexibility as to when it becomes operational.”
KUKL isn’t the only Montana station switching channels. KAJJ-CD, the translator that broadcasts KPAX in Kalispell, will move from channel 39 to 18 this fall. KDBZ, which beams KECI to Butte and Bozeman, is slated to switch channels in June 2019.