Friday, May 21, 2010
Dallas company hopes to help Pakistan reach out to tribal areas using short wave radio
Continental Electronics is the only company in the United States still making short wave radio transmitters.
Driving down Buckner Boulevard, you could pass right over Continental Electronics and not even realize it was there. For 40 years they’ve sat in Pleasant Grove designing, developing, and manufacturing high powered radio transmitters, and bolstering America’s national security.
Continental touts itself as “a premier manufacturer of radio frequency (RF) broadcast transmission equipment.” Their staple product is a three-bay RF transmitter that ranges from 11-35 kW and has been recognized in the industry for years. The transmitter is about six feet high, six feet wide, and weighs a ton. The series of wires, circuits, buttons and needles that look like a Batman Super Computer from back in the comes with an external power supply that itself weighs over 900 lbs.
For years Continental has been a leader in FM Radio Transmitters, with products installed at radio stations from Wasilla, Alaska (you betcha!) to Miami, Florida. Locally, KLUV, WRR, KRNB, KVIL and others use Continental 816R FM Transmitters.
On a visit to the Continental Electronics manufacturing facility, William Collins lead me around part of the 500,000 square foot space. Collins serves as Program Manager and Community Liason for the company, and started out by giving me a history lesson.
Continental Electronics dates back over 60 years, and in the early days the company built the first 1MW transmitter for the Voice of America. Their work helping spread the Unites States’ message of freedom after WWII and during the Cold War helped the group secure a number of government contracts. That includes Very Low Frequency (VLF) transmitters installed in Cutler, Maine that allows the military to communicate with submarines while they are submerged under water.
Another one of their current “classified” projects includes a 180 transmitter install with the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Alaska. Mr. Collins told me that the goal of HAARP is to study the effects that the RF transmitters have on the ionosphere. A look around the HAARP website doesn’t yield much, saying that their research “will have major value in the design of future communication and navigation systems for both military and civilian use.” But conspiracy theorists have tried to fill in the blanks, blaming HAARP for any number of disasters, from power outages to earthquakes.
As Mr. Collins walked me around the manufacturing floor (along with Director of Manufacturing Richard Key), he listed a few of the countries that are using Continental products, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, countries from the former Soviet Union and India. Many of these nations use short wave radio for a bulk of their communications and millions of listeners around the world hear BBC over shortwave radio. The day before my visit, a group from Malaysia was there inspecting a 100 kW Transmitter that was due to ship in a matter of days.
After the tour, I sat down with Continental Electronics President Dan Dickey who got right to the point. “The government has been a big portion of our business,” said Dickey. “Fifty jobs have been lost over the last five years due to loss of government contracts,” Dickey said. He went on to wonder aloud where stimulus dollars from the Recovery Act were flowing and why they hadn’t made their way down to Pleasant Grove. “High tech, skilled jobs with benefits, that’s the kind of jobs we offer here,” he said.
Continental’s location on Buckner Boulevard places them in a Historically Underutilized Business Zone. “How many plants are there on Buckner?” Dickey asked rhetorically, going on to say that the number of businesses in Southeast Dallas exporting overseas is almost none. And though Continental has partnered with the community for years (including their membership in the SE Dallas Chamber of Commerce) they have only recently been noticed by local politicians.
Dickey and Collins hope some of the attention will help them secure more government contracts and hire more people. In the late 80’s Continental Electronics employed over 600 residents. That number is now around 118. Continental recently bid on a project to supply two short wave radio transmitters to Pakistan through USAID. And according to Radio Netherlands Worldwide (via Shortwave Central Blog) the U.S. and Pakistan just signed a radio deal:
Pakistan has signed an $8 million agreement with the United States to enhance radio transmission coverage in Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and outreach to remote areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The US Agency for International Development (USAID) will provide two AM transmitters to the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC).
Radio Netherlands Worldwide
According to Dickey, Continental is the only company in the United States still making short wave radio transmitters. Therefore they’re competition for a contract like the one mentioned above is likely to be from an international firm. The question then becomes if all else is equal, would USAID choose to keep the jobs potentially created from this agreement stateside?
Dickey said he expects Continental to have twice as much business in 2010 than they did in 2009. “International markets are opening up, and activity on the U.S. government side is too,” Dickey said. Though they were late in developing their HD Transmitters, they are increasing their installs and expect to displace some of their competitors in the near future.
And he sees the company remaining in Pleasant Grove as well. The cost to recreate the facility would be high, and they have eight to nine acres of undeveloped land around their current location. “I can’t fathom us leaving Pleasant Grove,” he said. Besides their membership in the SE Dallas Chamber, they are also part of the local crime watch and work closely with the Dallas Police Department. Mr. Dickey said that five years ago they had a burglary almost monthly, but now he can’t remember the last time they had a break in.
“This is a great company,” Dickey said, noting that they haven’t received a letter of resignation in over two years. “We’re more efficient and we work harder, I’ll put our (employees) up against anyone.”
Continental Electonics - Tour of Dallas-based manufacturing plant
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