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Prairie Public to move antenna to avoid being blocked by high-rise

Block 9 developers and Prairie Public have reached a deal to move the broadcaster’s antennas so the high-rise doesn’t block the signals to the studios in downtown Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Prairie Public Broadcasting plans to move one of its downtown antennas to the top of the Radisson Hotel next door to avoid being blocked by the new Block 9 high-rise across the street, the broadcaster said.

No deal has been signed but Prairie Public CEO John Harris said Wednesday, Sept. 5, that Block 9 Partners have agreed to pay the rent for a period of time, perhaps a 15-year lease.

The Kilbourne Group and the R.D. Offutt Co., members of the partnership, said in a statement they'll pay a "significant portion" of the cost.

A secondary antenna will be moved to an adjacent building that Harris said he's not ready to identify yet. Two other antennas will remain as is because they likely won't be blocked, he said.

Neither side will say how much it will cost. Harris said he doesn't want to say while details are still being negotiated. He didn't have an exact timeline either but said the antennas will be moved long before they're blocked by Block 9.

Mike Allmendinger, Kilbourne's general manager, said both sides are "satisfied" with the solution, which was picked by Prairie Public out of several available.

Kilbourne is owned by Gov. Doug Burgum but not controlled by him day to day. He does have control over Prairie Public's budget, though his administration has said he hoping for a solution that satisfies all.

Reliable signals

Prairie Public now has mounted on a monopole behind its downtown headquarters with two antennas relaying signals to the main antenna tower in Wheatland, N.D., which then broadcasts to the rest of the state. It also has two antennas relaying signals to a tower in Amenia, N.D., which broadcasts to the Fargo region.

As the 18-story Block 9 high-rise is erected on the 200 block of Broadway, it will block the signals to the Wheatland antennas, which will have to move. The signals to the Amenia antennas will just squeak by and will stay where they are.

Block 9 Partners' initial reticence about how it will help solve the problem its building will create set off a storm of protest from Prairie Public members earlier in the summer.

Harris, who said he didn't ask members to protest, credited their support for the problem being solved. "It opened the eyes of the Block 9 Partners that maybe it was something that they should really take care of."

The Radisson had been home to one of Prairie Public's antennas until 10 years ago when antennas were relocated to the monopole during the transition to digital TV. Analog TV signals required only one antenna to be pointed at each tower because when signals are interrupted by, say, atmospheric conditions,+ some of the images and sounds will still get through to the viewer. With digital signals, any interruption can make it impossible to watch TV, requiring a secondary antenna to ensure reliability.

Jack Anderson, Prairie Public's director of engineering, said his team estimates 35 minute of outages each year with one antenna and only 15 seconds with two. The standard for broadcasters is 99.999 percent reliability, he said.

Secondary antennas, however, must be 25 to 30 feet away from main antennas, a distance that's not practical on top of the hotel, according to Harris.

Earlier, Prairie Public had envisioned mounting a shorter monopole on top of the Radisson, which would provide enough separation for two antennas. But that would've required permission from the Federal Aviation Administration because its height posed a potential hazard to low-flying aircraft; the existing brackets already have permission. It also would've required structural modifications to the building and might have looked unappealing, a consideration for hotel operators, according to Anderson.

The lease was also considered too high at that time.

The Block 9 Partners favored renting a fiber optic link between the broadcaster's offices with the Wheatland antenna, which wouldn't be affected by any future high-rise, but Prairie Public said this would raise its operating costs too much. A consultant hired by the city agreed with developers that fiber optics offered the best solution but estimated rents would cost $54,000 a year.

Anderson said the broadcaster remains concerned about possible blockage of the signal to the Amenia tower by a construction crane to be located north of the Block 9 building, but there's a backup plan to get a signal from the Wheatland tower to the Amenia tower if needed.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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