On Friday, the Commission released a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making (FNPRM) seeking input on completing the transition of all low power television stations (LPTV) and TV translator stations to digital operations.  Driven by the transition of all full power TV stations last year and the guidance from the National Broadband Plan, which recommended setting a deadline of 2015 for the transition of LPTVs to digital in order to increase efficiency in the TV bands and assist in the reallocation of those bands, the Commission’s rulemaking turns to the remaining analog television operations in the spectrum, i.e. LPTV and TV translator stations.  The Commission, having noted a significant increase in the past year of LPTV stations obtaining authority for, and actually switching to, DTV operations, concludes that "low power television stations should now begin to focus their time and resources on developing and implementing a digital conversion plan." 

In response to the main question of "when?", the Commission suggests a date in 2012 as the hard date by which all LPTVs and TV translators would have to complete the construction of digital facilities and cease analog operations.  While a specific date in 2012 is not offered, the Commission believes that three years after the June 12, 2009 full power transition should be a sufficient time period for completing the transition.  And of course, given that it is now September 2010, that really means that LPTV stations would have between 15 and 27 months from today to complete the transition.  The FNPRM does seek comment on alternative time frames or transition mechanisms, but notes that an adoption of an earlier transition date in 2012 might adversely impact some LPTV stations, which could "transition to digital only to find that their digital channel is no longer available as a result of the spectrum reallocation that is one of the recommendations in the Broadband Plan."  Such stations would then be forced to transition a second time.  Given that the Commission has not yet actually commenced a proceeding to implement the spectrum reallocation recommended in the Broadband Plan, this comment is a bit troubling.  Clearly, if the Commission is actually going to reallocate the spectrum as suggested in the National Broadband Plan, it should do so first before it mandates a DTV transition for LPTVs.  Or at the very least, it shouldn’t mandate such a transition until it can ensure that LPTV stations are transitioning to digital on a channel that won’t subsequently be reclaimed and re-purposed for a competing wireless broadband operation.  In acknowledgment of this, the FNPRM seeks comment on whether the analog termination date should be by the end of 2015 or after the "recommended reallocation of spectrum from the broadcast TV bands". 

Just as an aside — and all television broadcasters should take careful note — despite referring to it as the "recommended reallocation of spectrum from the broadcast TV bands", the Commission in this item repeatedly refers to the reallocation of TV spectrum in a way that implies that it is a given and not merely a recommendation in a white paper.

Separate from establishing a date for the ultimate transition of all LPTV stations to digital, the FNPRM proposes a transition date of December 31, 2011 for all low power television stations — either analog or digital — to cease operations on the out-of-core television Channels 52-69. These channels were long-ago reallocated (and in most cases auctioned off) for use by public safety and commercial wireless operations.  Although LPTV stations were allowed to continue in that spectrum on a secondary and temporary basis, the time has come to vacate those channels and find a new home.  To facilitate the transition, the Commission proposes that out-of-core LPTV stations be required to file a digital displacement application proposing an in-core channel by June 30, 2011.  Further, as of September 17, 2010, the Commission has imposed a filing freeze on 1.) applications for new analog LPTV stations and 2.) applications for new or modified stations in the 52-69 band, including flash-cut or digital companion channels. 

Among the other issues the FCC raises in the FNPRM is the question of how much the transition might cost a typical LPTV station. Ultimately, the transition of LPTVs may be challenging for many licensees. While some LPTV stations are network affiliates owned by large companies many, many others are licensed to community translator associations, independent operators, and minority owners serving rural areas or discrete communities in a larger urban market. Even with the assistance of the NTIA’s (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) reimbursement program for LPTVs in rural communities, some licensees may decide to sell or surrender their analog licenses rather than bear the cost and effort of transitioning to digital. More information about the reimbursement program for the transition of LPTVs in rural communities to DTV is available on the NTIA’s website here.  The Commission also seeks input generally on the outreach that would be required to educate communities and viewers about the transition of these remaining analog stations, and whether the Commission’s consumer call center should be expanded or updated.  The FNPRM also suggests a 30-mile limit to the relocation of an LPTV’s transmitter site, and that Class A stations would be able to retain primary, protected status on either their flash-cut digital channel or digital companion channel.  

Comments on the FNPRM will be due 60 days after the item is published in the Federal Register, with Reply Comments due 30 days after that. Interested parties should start preparing their thoughts now for their comments, and we’ll keep you posted once the publication occurs and the date for comments is set.