Sept. 11, 2009

(read NERW's comprehensive coverage of the aftermath of 9/11/01 here...)

Mount Mansfield, Vermont

Welcome to our new season of Tower Site of the Week - and the first in a series of TSoTW installments showcasing the images you'll find in the brand-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, arriving any day now in a mailbox near you.

(It's more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support!)

We kick off this year's calendar features with one of the most dramatically transformed mountaintop sites anywhere in the country: Mount Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont.

Since the debut of WMVT (later WCAX-TV) channel 3 in 1954, this mountaintop has been the source of most of the TV signals for viewers in Vermont and adjoining parts of New York, Quebec and even some areas of northern New Hampshire - but it's also an environmentally-sensitive area, and that meant years of wrangling between Vermont broadcasters and state officials when it came time to rework the mountaintop for digital television.

We first profiled Mount Mansfield on Site of the Week in its "old" configuration, in 2002 - and in 2006, we visited the site when it was in the midst of massive construction, as a new building went up literally surrounding the old WCAX-TV building, which was then dismantled from within.

In June 2008, we had a chance to return to the mountaintop to see the site as construction neared an end, and we found things deep in transition: digital TV was finally on the air from the new building on Mansfield, making the Burlington market the last TV market of any significant size in America to get DTV. At the same time, the old analog sites on the mountain still had a few more months to stay on the air, making Mansfield as crowded as it will ever be.

Here's how everything played out up here during the transition:

ABC affiliate WVNY-TV (Channel 22) remained on its old analog site (not shown here) next to the mountaintop visitor center right up until February, when the Burlington stations turned off their analog signals. That site, with its tall guyed tower, is still in use by WEZF (92.9 Burlington), which has yet to move to the new four-bay Shively panel antenna seen prominently on the left-hand tower on the calendar photo (at the top of the page).

WVNY-DT (Channel 13) has its digital antenna at the top of the other new tower on the mountaintop, right above LMA partner WFFF-DT (Channel 43), a newcomer to the mountain, having moved over from its analog site on Terry Mountain across Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The antenna above the new master FM antenna is shared by two stations: it's home to WCAX's digital signal, which was on channel 53 during the transition before moving to the channel 22 spectrum vacated by WVNY's analog signal, and it's also the home to another newcomer to the mountain, NBC affiliate WPTZ-DT (Channel 14). WPTZ also moved across the lake from Terry Mountain, which meant a better NBC signal for many central Vermont viewers at the expense of some of the territory in the Adirondacks that lost a WPTZ signal after the move.

Our 2008 visit provided the first look at the nearly-completed new transmitter building on the mountaintop, with new living quarters for the WCAX engineers and a row of new transmitter spaces in the area that used to be the WCAX garage. WCAX's analog transmitter remained in place, for the moment, next to the living quarters in space destined to be occupied by WEZF and Vermont Public Radio's WVPS (107.9); down the hall, the next two rooms were filled by the Harris transmitters of WCAX-DT and WPTZ-DT, with the combiner for the two stations mounted above. The small Rohde and Schwarz solid-state transmitters for WVNY and WFFF were in the next room down - and after that came the big generators that will keep this site powered in the event winter storms take out the shore power here.

By the spring of 2009, the old towers on the "nose" of the mountain were gone - in the photo above, they're the center tower with the old channel 3 helical antenna, and the other self-supporter on the right that was home to Vermont Public TV's WETK (Channel 33) and WVPS.

As for WETK, it's now the only TV station on the mountain that's not on one of the two new master towers or in the master transmitter building. Instead, Vermont Public TV stayed in its existing building uphill from WCAX, where the old RCA A-line and Harris channel 33 analog transmitters gave way to a much smaller Harris transmitter for WETK-DT (Channel 32) - and where there's a new tower out back topped by a new antenna for the DTV signal.

The next time we make it to the top of Mount Mansfield, it will be a little more sparse, without those old towers - but in the meantime, we're pleased to be able to share this transitional moment when digital and analog shared the rooftop of Vermont.

Thanks to the engineering staffs of WCAX, WVNY, VPT and VPR for the tours!

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