Saturday, February 3, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, February 3, 2001

Signal grows louder: Haleakala antennas must move

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

SCIENCE CITY, Maui — With a 2002 deadline looming and interference with University of Hawaii and Air Force observatories still strong, the plan to move radio and television broadcast antennas atop Haleakala is being re-energized.

A 1998 proposal to move the commercial transmitters to a site below the volcano’s 10,023-foot summit ran into a wave of opposition, and the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy last year scrapped its environmental planning effort.

But the dilemma of what to do with the antennas remains. Their signals continue to play havoc with the electronic instruments at Science City observatories, and the interference is only expected to increase once television stations switch from analog to digital transmitters by May of next year under a deadline imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.

KITV President and General Manager Michael A. Rosenberg, president of the Hawaii Television Broadcasters Association, said yesterday the search is back on for a suitable site for the antenna towers, which receive microwave transmissions from Honolulu TV studios and relay the signals to homes and cable systems on Maui, the Big Island and Windward Oahu. A high-elevation site is needed to avoid having the signals blocked by mountains.

Rosenberg said the broadcasters have their eye on a new site with the potential for satisfying all concerned. While broadcast engineers continue to study the suitability of the site, he is hopeful the location will work. Rosenberg wouldn’t say exactly where the site is, but he did say it’s on state land and has infrastructure that would significantly lower development costs.

Even so, Rosenberg wouldn’t rule out moving the antennas to Kalepeamoa, the site on Haleakala’s southwest ridge at the 9,400-foot level that drew the ire of environmentalists and Native Hawaiians in the fall of 1998. They objected to a proposal to install up to four 199-foot-tall towers clustered over five acres, saying it would mar a pristine ridge visible from Central Maui.

"There isn’t an easy solution,’’ Rosenberg said.

State Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairman Gilbert Coloma-Agaran said he has met with both university officials and the broadcasters and is hoping to receive a proposal soon that would move the antenna project along.

Air Force waiting for move

Meanwhile, Air Force officials say they are eager to see the antennas go. They say they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to minimize the effects on their space surveillance tracking satellites.

Air Force Maj. Jeff Sherk, director of the Maui Space Surveillance System, said the interference has affected the quality of telescope images and has frequently forced researchers to redo their work.

"The bottom line is that our primary mission is to obtain images of satellites for our national defense. We’ve spent hundreds of millions on the telescopes up there, and we would like to get the sharpest images possible,’’ Sherk said.

With the university observatories facing the same challenges, the Institute for Astronomy had agreed to conduct the environmental work to help the relocation project get moving. The plan called for the state to use the bid procurement process to find a developer who would build the facility and sublease it to the broadcasters.

Mike Maberry, the institute’s Maui manager, said financial reasons prompted a decision to stop the planning for the Kalepeamoa site. He declined to elaborate.

Nevertheless, Maberry said the need to move the transmitters remains urgent.

"This has got to be resolved,’’ he said. "There are so many broadcasters, it’s like a fog pouring out into our property.’’

In fact, Maberry said, a two-meter telescope installed at the summit last year by the University of Tokyo is still having trouble getting its sensors working because of the interference.

UH officials have said that without the interference from broadcast antennas, the Haleakala summit could attract three to five new scientific facilities in the next 20 years. New observatories would put millions of dollars in construction spending into Maui’s economy, while operating expenses would run more than $1 million annually.

An existing antenna farm is available at Ulupalakua Ranch. Chuck Bergson, president of Island Airwaves, owner of the site at the 4,400-foot level, said it would work well enough for the broadcasters and save them a fight with the community.

But Rosenberg said the Ulupalakua site is too low and doesn’t allow for signals to reach parts of Maui and Kona on the Big Island.

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