With the end of the DTV transition, the future use of TV channels 5 and 6, about which we have written before, is now back before the Commission in connection with an FCC filing by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, whose "radio rescue petition" was recently placed on a public notice opening a 30 day public comment period. The FCC already has before it comments filed in its Diversity proceeding suggesting that these channels be reallocated for radio use, as Channel 6 is immediately adjacent to the lower end of the FM band, and the sound from many analog channel 6 TV stations could be heard on FM receivers. While this petition has been opposed by certain TV interests, it is interesting to note that many television operators have been acknowledging that VHF channels, which had been the preferred channels for analog operations, may not be as advantageous for digital use, especially in urban areas, and may be particularly problematic for use with mobile digital television systems which are about to be introduced.
In an analog world, VHF channels (those between 2 and 13) were prized by broadcasters, as stations operating on those channels could operate at power levels significantly lower than UHF stations (saving electricity costs), and still cover greater areas. Many broadcasters thought that these benefits, particularly the lower power costs, would carry over into the digital world, and opted to remain on VHF channels for their digital operations – in some case abandoning the UHF temporary transition channel on which they were operating digitally during the period when they were running both a digital and an analog station before the end of the transition, to return to their VHF channel for their final digital operation. Right after the digital transition was complete and these stations had moved back to their old VHF channels for their digital operations, in several major markets, many broadcasters operating on VHF channels found that their digital operations had significant problems, as the power levels were insufficient to reach many over-the-air sets, particularly those using "rabbit ears" antennas in urban areas.
In recent weeks, we have seen many stations, including those in major markets (like Chicago), petition the FCC to move abandon their VHF operations and move to a UHF channel for their digital operations, citing these reception issues. Interestingly, many have also cited concerns about the ability of stations operating on digital VHF channels to operate successfully in a mobile environment, using the new mobile television system that is being developed and which is supposed to be rolled out quite soon. I have heard technical people in the television industry express concern about the low power levels of these VHF stations and their ability, in a mobile environment, to provide a stable signal to receivers as well as stations on UHF channels. A recent article in TV NewsCheck raises that same issue.
With these concerns, one would think that TV stations would not be concerned about the proposals to use channels 5 and 6 for radio – but that is not the case. In at least one major market, there is no easy UHF channel for the TV operator to use. In other markets, particularly more rural markets, where there is less interference from buildings and other RF radiation in the environment, these issues have not been as much of a concern. Thus, TV station operators have been saving on electricity, and wonder who would bear the cost if they were forced to transition to another channel for their ultimate digital home. Thus, a number of TV broadcast companies have opposed the reallocation of channels 5 and 6 to radio.
In the recent LPTV filing window, petitions were filed by a group supporting the reallocation, which was supported by a number of other parties, asking that the Commission freeze new LPTV applications for Channels 5 and 6 while these issues are pending. Moreover, as the FCC has never issued rules for radio stations now operating in areas where there used to be channel 6 stations (even though a transition process had been promised), noncommercial radio interests were concerned that the potential use of these channels by LPTV stations could preclude FM upgrade options for these stations operating within the current noncommercial reserved band. The FCC has never ruled on these requests for a freeze on the LPTV applications on these channels.
Thus, the MMTC petition (which can be accessed from the MMTC homepage) brings focus back on the issue. MMTC asks that the Commission convene an industry-wide committee to map out the transition of these channels for radio use, and to address some of the issues that have been raised with the repurposing of this spectrum. Comments on the MMTC petition, which also raised many other issues for radio broadcasters, are due on October 23, 2009.