Late last week, the FCC advanced a number of proposals on how it will deal with LPTV stations and TV translators after the incentive auction and the repacking of the TV spectrum into whatever channels are left after part of the TV band is repurposed for wireless uses.  The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking raises a number of issues, including the potential for delaying the mandatory digital transition for LPTV stations and translators that continue to operate in analog.  The FCC also suggested a post-auction window for LPTV and translator stations to file for displacement channels if there current operations are no longer possible after the repacking of the TV band.  It also addressed the potential for LPTVs on Channel 6 being able to transmit, post-digital transition, an analog audio channel so that “Franken FMs” (“radio stations” received on FM radio receivers on 87.7 that really are the audio portion of the LPTV’s programming), can continue. 

Comments on these proposals will be due 30 days after publication of the Notice in the Federal Register, with reply comments 15 days thereafter.  Presumably, as the incentive auction is fast approaching, as is the current deadline for mandatory September 1, 2015 digital conversion of these stations (which we wrote about here when the deadline was adopted), the FCC will act quickly on the proposals that have been made.  So just what are the proposals on which the FCC is asking for comment?

Here are some of the proposals: 

(1)   Extending the September 1, 2015 digital transition deadline for LPTV and TV translator stations.  As there are still many LPTV stations that have still not converted to digital, the Commission has tentatively concluded that it will extend the current September 1 deadline for the conversion of all LPTV stations and TV translators to convert to digital.  As we have written before, the FCC does not want to force these stations to spend money to convert their operations to digital on a channel that may disappear after the auction (or potentially, in some markets, for a station that will no longer exist after the repacking of the TV band).  But, a question asked by the FCC is when the new deadline should be?  Should they set a new deadline now, or wait until after the incentive auction?   While the FCC suggests some dates within close proximity to the date on which the channels to be used by full-power stations area are announced after the repacking of the TV band, that would seemingly present problems, as LPTV stations and translator licensees will need time to find alternative channels if they are bumped by the TV band repacking, and to actually buy and install the equipment necessary for the digital change – equipment that may be frequency and transmitter site dependent and could not be purchased until a final channel for the operation of the LPTV or translator was determined.  At that point, in the middle of the implementation of the TV repack, it would seem like engineers and tower crews would be in high demand, so implementing any required changes might need some time.  Perhaps comments in this proceeding will address these issues

(2)     A Post-Auction window for filing displacement applications.  The FCC proposes a post-auction window for LPTV stations and translators to file applications to locate to new channels, after full-power stations have found their final channels.  Questions include whether LPTV stations and translators should have the ability to make major changes in transmitter sites if necessary to preserve their existence.  Also, how will stations be accommodated if there are more stations than available channels after the auction?

(3)   Making available the FCC repacking software to assist LPTV stations and TV translators in finding new channels after the incentive auction.  The FCC suggests that, after the repacking of the TV spectrum with the full-power and Class A stations, it could review each market, and put out suggested open channels in that market for LPTV and TV translator use (or channel sharing, see the next item). 

(4)   Allowing channel sharing by LPTV and TV translator stations, and by LPTV/TV translators and full power/Class A TV stations.  The FCC is considering adopting channel sharing rules for LPTV and TV translator stations, allowing LPTV and TV translators operating digitally to share a single 6 MHz spectrum block – each having a separate and independent license, or even allowing them to share spectrum with full power and Class A television stations.  If spectrum sharing is allowed with a full-power station, how would the LPTV/TV translator license be treated?  Should they be able to enjoy the greater coverage that would be afforded from the full-power station?  What agreements regarding such arrangements would the FCC need to review and approve?

(5)   The creation of a new “digital-to-digital replacement translator” service for full power stations that experience losses in their pre-auction service areas.  Under this proposal, eligibility for digital-to-digital replacement translators would be limited to those full power television stations whose channels are changed following the incentive auction to fill in areas where they now have coverage, but won’t on their new, post-repack channels.  The FCC suggests that applications for this new class of translator be accepted immediately after the incentive auction and repacking of the TV band.  One question asked is whether this new class of translator should get preference over LPTV and other TV translator stations who may be seeking new channels at the same time?

A surprising inclusion in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was the question of whether the FCC should allow FM radio-type services to continue on TV channel 6 after the digital conversion.  We have written before about how some LPTV stations use their analog channels to provide a radio-like service, which can be received on most FM receivers at 87.7 MHz, adjacent to the low end of the noncommercial FM dial at 88.1 MHz.  When these LPTV stations convert to digital, the digital audio portion of their signal would no longer be able to be received by standard FM receivers.  The FCC is now asking if it should allow Channel 6 LPTV stations that convert to digital to continue to transmit a separate analog audio transmission on an ancillary basis.  The FCC seeks comment on the potential for interference from these analog operations, whether the proposal is consistent with the Communications Act requirement that ancillary services be consistent with the technology used for providing advanced services, whether any radio station operating on such an auxiliary basis should be subject to all of the FM rules, and whether the LPTV licensee would have to pay fees on all revenues from the FM operation as being ancillary and supplementary revenues of the digital operation.

Finally, the FCC asks whether it should change Section 15.117(b) of its FCC’s rules to eliminate any obligation for manufacturers to integrate analog tuners in TV receivers.  The FCC asks whether the obligation for equipment manufacturers to continue to include analog tuners in their TV devices is still needed now that all full-power stations and most LPTV and TV translator stations have converted to digital.

The FCC also invites input on any other measures it should consider to further mitigate the impact of the auction and repacking process on LPTV and TV translator stations.  As set out above, comments in this proceeding will be due 30 days after Federal Register publication of the NPRM, with replies due 15 days thereafter.  So if any of these proposals would affect your operations, consider comments by the upcoming deadline.