The Spectrum Repack Is Here!

The spectrum repack reduces the frequences which are used for over-the-air television so they can be used for other services such as 5G wireless. As a result many stations will begin transmitting on a different frequency. In some cases they may also transmit from a new location. This is a nationwide change that is being conducted in phases – The San Francisco – Oakland – San Jose area is in Phase 9, with a few stations in Phase 8.

As described below, SF Bay Area viewers are already being affected by the work required to prepare for the repack.

Update February 9, 2020: Over the next week SFBayATSC will begin monitoring the phase 8 post-repack frequencies of select channels. In some cases, such as for RF 31 (KTVU 2’s post-repack frequency), the charts will show no data until the station begins testing. The list of monitored frequencies has been updated to show the pre-repack and post-repack channels.

The actual repack dates – the dates when stations will switch to their new frequencies – are:

  • Phase 8: 1/18/2020 – 3/13/2020
  • Phase 9: 3/14/2020 – 5/1/2020

The dates listed above are the “testing period” for each phase. During the testing period stations are allowed to begin broadcasting on their new frequencies. By the end of the testing period the stations must stop broadcasting on their old frequencies.

Pre-Repack Impact

In order to accommodate the work required to switch to a new frequency, some stations are currently operating on auxiliary antennas. Because these antennas may be lower on a tower (especially on Sutro Tower), or have different transmission characteristics than the main antenna, viewers may need to adjust the location or orientation of their antennas.

Post-Repack Changes

During a repack phase stations will switch to their newly assigned frequencies. In some cases the physical location of transmitters will also change. For the SF Bay Area the majority of stations broadcast from Sutro Tower in San Francisco. However broadcasts also originate from San Bruno Mountain as well as Mt. Allison and Monument Peak in the hills overlooking Fremont.

What will NOT change are a station’s call sign or channel number. As an example KNTV will continue to be known as KNTV and will continue to be on 11-1. What will change is that 11-1, which is currently broadcast on RF channel 12, will switch to RF channel 13. 11-1 is known as the “virtual channel number.” (Confused? Don’t worry – in most cases you don’t need to know the RF channel, except that it’s changing…)

How your devices learn about the change in RF channels depends on the type of device.

  • For televisions and many ATSC receivers, users will need to perform a channel (re)scan. During the scanning process the TV or receiver will tune to each RF frequency and see what channels it finds. This is the same process a user would use if a new station were to go on air.
  • For devices which get program guide data from a service, such as TiVo DVRs, the service provider will automatically update its information. BUT, there will likely be a lag, from days to weeks, between the time a station starts broadcasting on its new frequency and the time the service information is updated. Devices typically offer a channel scan function to discover channels which are not known to the program guide system, and users may need to use this to add channels on their new frequencies. Note that channels added in this manner will likely lack program and schedule information, so users will need to manually set up recordings.

The observant of you will note that the “testing phase” lasts about 2 months and a station can switch at any time during the testing phase. In addition, in some cases in order for one station to start transmitting, another station will need to stop transmitting. As an example, KGO will be moving to RF 12, which is currently occupied by KNTV. As a result KNTV will need to move first, after which KGO can switch. So there is no single day when all stations in the Bay Area will cut over. Instead, expect that stations will transition individually during the period.

Bottom line: Scan Often!

More Information

The FCC’s repack site

The National Association of Broadcasters Spectrum Repacking Database lists stations, old/new broadcast channels, and transition phase assignments. (For the SF Bay Area, select “San Francisco – Oakland – San Jose” under “Filter by DMA” and click Submit).

Larry Kenney’s list of SF Bay Area stations, including the pre-repack and post-repack RF channel assignments

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