An amazing view at 204 meters, an alarm, plenty of radio technology and the memory of a meeting with Udo Lindenberg ... Thomas Scheel opened many doors of the Hamburg TV tower for me. As a technical property manager, he can tell you a lot.
The LED in the elevator shows "30" as we get off. End of the line. The last room of the tower shaft under the slim top is sparsely lit. It smells like an attic. Bare cement everywhere. Signs and switches on the wall. Also an old picture frame. Inside, someone has stuck a collage of hamburger wrappers. Old and faded, maybe from lunch breaks in the 80s? The fact that my gaze now remains glued to it actually shows: I can't yet imagine standing on a platform 204 meters above Hamburg. 55 meters higher than Cologne Cathedral. I feel a little queasy.
"Make sure you have a secure foothold and grip"
We now continue up a vertical steel ladder. My colleague Thomas Scheel climbs ahead, opens the heavy, round hatch in the ceiling. The sun glistens in. "Make sure you step safely and hold on," he warns, showing me where to hold on with every move. I climb out of the skylight. No, "crawl" is more appropriate here. Black, arm-thick cables from antennas surround me, plus lots of metal.
I squirm between supports and struts as I get used to the light. Steel-blue sky. And bright orange: Here on the uppermost antenna platform is the signal-colored top. It's more than 70 meters high, held up by the six human-sized bolts I see around the hatch. When I look over the white railing, I can't stop spitting. Houses, "Michel", parks, cars, harbor, cranes ... everything in miniature and most beautiful light.
At 276.5 meters, the tower is the tallest building in Hamburg. 53 years young, it is by the way already under monument protection. The top antenna floor is the highest workplace in the Hanseatic city, Thomas estimates. At least among the workplaces that do not require any protective clothing. If we now wanted to go further up to the antenna top, we would need it. Apart from the fact that I - unlike Thomas - have no climbing training, the broadcast antennas mounted there would also have to be switched off for this. For safety reasons.
Thomas is the object manager with technical responsibility for the TV tower - in addition to five other locations in and around Hamburg. He works for Deutsche Telekom subsidiary Deutsche Funkturm (DFMG, see box). This one in particular is unique. It has a two-story viewing platform - still closed to visitors - and a separate technology platform: both thick, discus-shaped rings on the tower shaft. Equally striking: the six rings or floors for antennas that follow above.
Radio relay from tower to tower
For example, antennas for directional radio. These look like oversized lampshades, rotated by 90 degrees. A so-called radio wave shoots out from their center like a beam to be received by the antenna counterpart at the next tower, sometimes more than 60 kilometers away, broadcast and, if necessary, amplified again for further transport. To ensure that they hit their target, no high-rise building or forest must be in the way. Nor must anything move the antennas. For this reason, they are bolted to a heavy steel structure.
These radio relay links connect, for example, cell phone towers or entire companies to the telecommunications network, provide police radio or transmit television signals. Thomas explains this to me using an example. Let's assume that the German president was giving a speech in the harbor: "The broadcasters' live broadcast trucks would send the recordings directly to the TV tower, which would radio them to the studios. The control room there regulates picture and sound, which immediately goes back to the tower and from there to the distant towers and their broadcast areas." All in a split second.
Suddenly, a siren wails from below. Disaster warning?! My heart jumps into my throat. Thomas calms me down: "Just a test run for the flood alarm." My dear Hanseatic city of Hamburg, I think ... Today of all days, while 204 meters separate me unsuspecting from the safe ground. And even more so with the wind up here, much stronger than down below on this balmy late summer day. Thomas' level-headed, calm manner impresses me. It helps me during this unusual on-site visit. He has just completed his 40th year of service, for which his colleagues surprised him with a small celebration in the tower. You can see how pleased he was.
The Hamburg native began his training as a telecommunications technician at Deutsche Telekom's predecessor, Bundespost, in 1981. Among other things, he worked in radio network planning until a property manager was needed for the TV tower - with radio and riser experience. He is the technical contact for everyone who needs the tower. For providers of radio and television services, for public authorities with their own radio systems, and for mobile communications units of Deutsche Telekom and its competitors. Thomas manages everything - from the placement of antennas and other reception and transmission technology to power supply, heating, ventilation and building maintenance - and controls the service providers for this. This also includes the so-called "flight obstruction lighting", i.e. the red and white signal lights for pilots.
Two-ton crane for heavy equipment
The 55-year-old has welcomed many visitors to the tower, including celebrities. He knows what to look out for and addresses it, especially possible lack of space on the narrow stairs or fear of heights with the antennas. I also respectfully keep my distance from the edges. Nevertheless, there is enough to see. Here on the top floor there is also a rotating crane for bulky, heavy loads that do not fit into the small four-person elevator. No large elevator goes up here. It would no longer fit into the tapered tower. For the crane, however, a special company has to be called in. Anyone who wants to install technology on the tower must first take a look at the elevator. Thomas and his team regularly need the crane to attach scaffolding to the lower floors. They climb onto it at dizzying heights to check the concrete wall from the outside.
Now we go down the ladder again, then further down a narrow steel staircase. All around, along the outer wall. We then also enter lower antenna floors. Thomas opens the large steel doors - yes, indeed: there are heavy crank locks to protect against wind and weather and against sudden closing. The vertical cables of the connected antennas accompany us on the way down. We arrive at the technology platform. Here there are server shelves for the transmitting and receiving equipment. There is also a conference room with a long table where a control station used to be. After the radio technology became more digital, this was no longer needed. Deutsche Telekom keeps an eye on everything from its network management centers in Bonn and Bamberg. Deutsche Funkturm GmbH is also responsible for the flight obstruction lighting, which is monitored by a service provider in Leipzig.
We descend further to the observation deck, then to the former restaurant below. Time stood still here after there had been no visitor traffic since 2005. Remnants of furniture from the 60s or 70s. Brown mosaic tiles on the wall, also a relief depicting oversized drinking glasses. I'm hoping to get things going again here soon. Planning for the remodel is underway. Thomas is part of the project team. In his office, he shows me the model for a reception hall that is to be built at the foot of the tower. Oh yes, his office: It is probably the highest in Hamburg.
We descend further, past the narrowest part of the stairs (about 60 centimeters) to the basement. Ventilation systems, heating and a room full of equipment for the power supply. Next to it, one with an emergency generator that could supply a small town. And another room: rows and rows of batteries, dozens of them, each about waist high. The three rooms correspond to three possible needs of TV tower customers: Pure power for non-critical applications, emergency power for anything that immediately continues broadcasting after a brief interruption. "And permanent battery power for anything that can't wait for systems to boot up for a long time," Thomas explains. Net and double bottom, that is.
I now think I've seen the whole building. Walking up the tower with Thomas makes it clear: Today's technology takes up less space. Hardware has become smaller. Some technologies have been phased out, others replaced, such as analog television by digital. Fiber optic networks in the ground are taking over more services. But something new is already waiting in the wings, claiming space for itself: "edge computing" in the mobile network. This means computing power in the network, close to the customer. And not, as is the case today, far away in large data centers, to which the data travels long distances. This helps applications to react at lightning speed, for example for drone flights, robot vehicles or gaming. Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, CEO of DFMG, has clear ideas about this: TV towers have great potential to support the so-called "tactile Internet" or "real-time Internet." High-performance computers that process data in milliseconds and transmit at lightning speed via short cable runs to the antennas will soon be able to supplement the existing technology in the tower.
Udo Lindenberg as a guest
Thomas' job might be one of the most unique in the region. "People who hear about it for the first time among their acquaintances raise their eyebrows in amazement," he says. For him, the job is routine. And yet there are always unusual assignments that he greatly appreciates. For example, when the tower is illuminated, as it was on New Year's Eve. Thomas then clarifies the logistics with the event technicians and ensures that the power connections are in the right places. The same thing happened at the "Night of Light" in June 2020, when light installations drew attention to the situation in the Corona-stricken event industry. Among the guests on the antenna floor was Udo Lindenberg, with whom Thomas exchanged a few words: "That was really something special," he looks back. It was, of course, about the tower, the mega view.
"Hammerkrass" - and a big thank you to Thomas Scheel.
And to all those who have read this far, a quiz question: Tall buildings like TV towers sway. How many meters do you think they sway to the left and right? Up to ... A: one meter, B: three meters or C: five meters?