Hot Stuff

A new measuring technique may allow higher broadcast emissions on Lookout Mountain.

Before long, Channel 2 will begin sending out a digital TV signal across Denver -- good news for the relative handful of local viewers who have the proper equipment but no cable or satellite service. Yet the rationale under which the station was granted permission to mount a digital antenna to one of its Lookout Mountain towers has angered members of Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), a consortium of neighborhood groups that's spent ages fighting the proliferation of broadcasting gadgets in the foothills west of Denver. And Deb Carney, CARE's attorney, places the blame for this turn of events squarely on officials with Jefferson County and the Federal Communications Commission.

"Jefferson County owes its citizens a duty to protect their health, safety and welfare and should not be abrogating that duty because of a misplaced reliance on the FCC, especially in light of the FCC's documented history of failing to protect people," Carney says.

Specifically, Carney is concerned about "hot spots" near antennas where radio-frequency emissions, known as RF, exceed safety standards established by the FCC. (Several studies have suggested a link between RF and cancer -- conclusions that remain controversial.) Channel 2 has a pair of towers on Lookout Mountain: The first measures 450 feet in height, the second tops out at 198.6 feet. Over time, CARE member Al Hislop found assorted hot spots in the vicinity of these units, and his findings were generally confirmed by FCC personnel using a wand-like device called an RF survey meter to measure radio-frequency levels. On one occasion, power had to be decreased on an antenna attached to a Channel 2 tower (it was owned by local FM radio station Alice) in order for the station to sneak under maximum allowable RF limits.

Considering how close the tower already was to non-compliance, getting approval to add another antenna would seem to be a tough sell, and it was; a request made by Channel 2 to place a digital-TV doodad on its largest tower was rejected earlier in 2002. But the reason, says Jefferson County zoning administrator Tim Carl, had nothing to do with RF. Instead, the rub was a Jeffco regulation stating that an antenna can't be replaced on towers over 200 feet tall unless it provides the same service as the one for which it's being swapped -- and given that the tower hadn't supported a digital-TV antenna in the past, the service was plainly different. Channel 2 appealed this decision through Jeffco's board of adjustment. When it lost in that venue, the station took the county to district court; the case is still pending.

Still, Channel 2 couldn't simply wait for justice to take its course, because of pressure from the FCC. The commission ordered outlets in the country's fifty largest television markets to be digital-TV-ready before the end of the '90s, and at present, 49 of them are on track. However, a plan submitted by a gaggle of Denver broadcasters dubbed the Lake Cedar Group to build a so-called digital supertower on Lookout Mountain was rebuffed by Jefferson County commissioners in 1999, thanks largely to the efforts of CARE ("Something in the Air," April 6, 2000). Local broadcasters reacted by coming up with temporary digital solutions; for instance, Channel 4 and Channel 6 are currently sending out digital signals from the roof of downtown's Republic Plaza. But such stopgaps won't provide long-term satisfaction for the FCC, which is bent on moving the digital revolution forward by any means necessary. Last month, commissioners led by Michael Powell, son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, directed all TV manufacturers to build digital tuners into their products by 2007, even though doing so may add as much as $200 to the cost of a set.

This year, three new tower proposals have been floated locally, but to date, none have won approval. Florida-based Pinnacle Towers wanted to build a tower on Eldorado Mountain, near Boulder, but county commissioners gave the scheme a thumbs-down in April. A separate bid by Public Interest Communications, an alliance of Channel 6, Colorado Public Radio and KUVO, to construct a tower on Mount Morrison, close to Red Rocks, will go before the Jefferson County planning commission on September 25; once a recommendation is made, the proposition will be forwarded to the county commissioners. Finally, the Lake Cedar Group, which includes Channel 2, is again asking permission to build a digital-TV tower on Lookout Mountain -- but its pitch probably won't be heard until next year. According to Jefferson County planner Steve Brown, the planning commission had penciled in Lake Cedar for sessions on November 13 and December 4, but a request for additional technical data has resulted in an indefinite delay.

Faced with these roadblocks, Channel 2 returned to Jefferson County with a new idea: How about putting a digital antenna on its smaller tower? After all, the same-service restriction applies only to edifices over 200 feet, and the station's auxiliary tower is under that height by almost a foot and a half.

Of course, the question of hot spots remained -- but the FCC came up with an answer. Previously, zoning administrator Carl points out, hot spots were measured by holding an RF survey meter approximately eight inches above an area to be tested, then lifting it straight up to a height of around eight feet. But Carl received a letter from the FCC that announced a new testing procedure. "They told us you have to take into account directions -- north, south, east and west," Carl says. "You're supposed to use more of a zigzag motion that can be spatially averaged to determine a person's exposure." He adds that when measured in this manner, all of Channel 2's onetime hot spots wound up beneath the FCC threshold -- and since he felt the antenna proposal met all other standards, he approved it in August.

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