The Senate has reportedly once again approved the extension of the digital television transition date from February 17 to June 12 (see Press Release from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison here).  This approval was necessary as the bill being considered by the House of Representatives is slightly different than the one passed by the Senate on Monday.  Now – it’s back to the House, which failed yesterday to pass that bill by a 2/3 vote (see our post here).  Under the expedited process that was being used, the failure to get a 2/3 vote meant that the legislation did not pass.  The legislation now must got through the normal consideration process in the House, being first approved by committee, then voted on by the full House – with only a majority needed to approve the measure.  The House is going to be out of session tomorrow through Monday, so the committee that now needs to consider the bill could review it next Tuesday, and then it could be voted on by the full House on Wednesday. So if all goes as planned, there could be an extension approved next week.  If the House process somehow gets held up, the President and the FCC cannot act on any extension without action by Congress, as the February 17 date is written into law and can only be changed by a new law.  Given that the transition is only 3 weeks away, and the extension of the transition is still not a certainty, what is a television station to do?

Initially, stations should proceed as if the February 17th deadline will stick as, for now, it is the law. So keep running all the required crawls, snipes and tickers promoting the upcoming termination of analog television.  If an extension is passed, these announcements will only have caused more people to get ready for a transition that will occur sooner or later. But the extension will also allow stations to opt to transition before the new June deadline, and cease their analog operations early.  How do these stations proceed?


Continue Reading Senate Approves DTV Extension Bill Again and it’s Back to the House of Representatives – What’s a Station to Do?

Earlier this week, we wrote about the apparent compromise in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats that would seemingly allow the Digital Television conversion deadline to be delayed from the current date of February 17 that stations have been warning consumers about for years, pushing that date back until June 12.  That compromise legislation passed the

This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced.  The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term.  As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.

Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations.  In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates.  Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches.  Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.


Continue Reading Senator Hutchison Announces Compromise on DTV Transition Delay Until June 12 – Why Congress Needs to Act Soon

What a difference a few days makes.  At the beginning of this week, it was full speed ahead for the February 17 termination of analog television.  Then NTIA announced that it was out of money to pay for DTV coupons to assist the public in buying converter boxes so that analog TV sets will continue to work after the transition.  This action, in turn, caused Consumers Union to ask Congress for a delay in the transition, resulting in Congressman Markey’s office suggesting that the DTV transition might need to be delayed (as we wrote yesterday).  Today, the other shoe dropped as the Obama transition team formally wrote to Congress asking for a delay of the termination of analog television.  That letter leaves everyone asking – will Congress respond?  If so, what are the ramifications?

The NAB responded with a press release talking about how broadcasters are still prepared to meet the deadline, and how the deadline has focused all parties (TV stations, electronics manufacturers, cable and satellite companies) on doing what they need to do in order to be ready for the transition.  But the Obama team’s call for the postponement does not seem to be focused on the readiness of program providers to accomplish the switch, but instead on the readiness of viewers to deal with the new digital environment, especially given the lack of coupons for last minute shoppers still waiting to buy their converter boxes.  As we’ve written before, many in Washington are worried about the political ramifications of the transition – especially if millions of people wake up on February 18 and can’t watch the Today Show or Good Morning America.  And while that is a legitimate concern, one wonders if it will ever be possible to prepare everyone for the transition deadline.  Sure, if the deadline is postpone 4 or 5 months, there will be a marginal increase in people who are ready, but there will still be stragglers.  Catching up to them all may never happen until they are hit with the reality of their analog sets not working on the day after the transition, whenever that day may be.  If so, shouldn’t someone at least consider the costs that a delay will impose on broadcasters? 


Continue Reading Obama Transition Team Requests Delay of DTV Transition Deadline

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Fill-In Translators, to provide television service in areas where a television station’s digital signal does not reach locations that were covered by its analog operations (a proposal we summarized here) was published in the Federal Register today, setting comment dates on this proposal.  Comments are due on January 12, and Replies on January 22.  As the Commission has already published instructions for filing for temporary authority to operate these stations, broadcasters who are interested in the final rules that may be adopted should look to file comments on these matters before the January 12 deadline.  This is another proceeding that is being rushed through the Commission in anticipation of the February 17 end of the digital television transition.

The analog nightlight proceeding is on an even faster track, with comments due on Monday (see our summary of that proceeding here). The Commission has just released a tentative agenda for its January 15 meeting, where the only item it will consider (other than reports from the Commission’s various Bureau Chiefs) will be the analog nightlight proposal.  This is likely to be Chairman Martin’s last meeting as chair of the FCC.  In light of the Congressional mandate to complete this proceeding by January 15, the Commission will have received comments and replies and digested them into a decision – all in the space of  20 days from the release of its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – with the Christmas and New Years holidays intervening!  If anything, this shows two things – that the FCC can move rapidly if it has to, and that the DTV transition is the one and only real priority on the full Commission’s agenda right now. 


Continue Reading TV Digital Transition Rushes On – Comment Date on Proposals for Digital Fill-In Translators Set for January 12 and Analog Nightlight to Be Approved at January 15 Commission Meeting

Last week, the FCC introduced a new service to fill in gaps in the service of a digital television station – permitting television stations to immediately apply for Special Temporary Authority to construct digital translators.  Translators rebroadcast the signal of a full-power station, but operate on a channel different than the main station they retransmit.  The Commission has already authorized stations to operate on-channel low-power facilities in the Distributed Transmission Service (DTS) proceeding, about which we wrote here.  The digital translators, however, will only be authorized to serve areas that had received analog service from the television station but which will lose that service when the station goes fully digital, thus raising questions as to how much use these stations will really be.  In a Public Notice released today, providing filing information for these translators, the Commission states that the translators can only serve this loss area.  While the authorization of this Digital Low Power Television Translator service will begin immediately on an STA basis, the Commission’s order came out only in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which could ultimately be rejected by the Commission after public comments are submitted.

The Commission seeks comments on a number of proposals made in this proceeding, including the following:

  • The new translators would operate on Channels 2-59, with those operations on channels 53-59 being authorized only where the applicant can show that there is no other channel on which a translator can operate
  • These translators will be given application priority over all other translator applications except those for the displacement of an existing translator or LPTV station, which would have co-equal priority
  • The translators would be authorized as part of the main station license, would be renewed as part of the main station license, and could not be sold except with the main station.
  • The translators will be authorized to fill in the area served by an analog full-power station but lost when the station converts to digital.  The Commission seeks comments as to whether even a nominal extension of the coverage area will be permitted (it apparently will not for authorizations initially granted through an STA) 
  • Applicants receiving an authorization for this service will be given a construction permit – and the Commission asks if that permit should be limited to a period of six months so that service to the public will be initiated quickly.
  • The Commission also asks how this service should interact with white spaces devices recently authorized by the Commission (see our summary).


Continue Reading FCC Proposes New Digital Low Power Fill-In Translators, and Starts Accepting Applications Immediately

Congress recently passed legislation authorizing an analog "nightlight" or lifeline for those left behind after the digital transition.  This law was designed to allow certain full-power stations to remain operating in analog on February 18, with information about the digital transition for those people who otherwise managed to miss the information about that deadline.  This past week, while Santa was making his deliveries, the FCC released its proposals for implementing this authorization.  The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sets out a list of stations that can take advantage of the authorization automatically, and the process for other stations being able to operate such a service.  In addition, the Notice proposes restrictions on the nightlight operation, the length of service, and miscellaneous other matters.  Given the tight timeframe before implementation on the end date of the digital transition, comments on the FCC’s proposals will be due 5 days after they are published in the Federal Register, and replies 3 days later.

The proposals include the following:

  • Analog operation would be permitted by authorized stations for only 30 days after the end of the digital transition, through the end of the day on March 19, 2009.
  • The nightlight service can only include information about local emergencies, and information about how viewers can get digital television services.  The information about how to get digital services should be in English and Spanish, and accessible to those with disabilities.  No advertising will be permitted.
  • The Commission attached to its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking a list of eligible stations .  Such stations, if they are interested in participating, need to electronically file by February 10 a request for Special Temporary Authority to operate the nightlight .  No filing fee will be required.
  • Stations not listed may still participate by demonstrating how they will protect all digital operations, through lower power, terrain shielding, directional antennas or similar techniques.  Comments showing how they will participate should be filed in the comment period for the NPRM.
  • The nightlight service will not be entitled to mandatory cable carriage.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Rules for Analog Nightlight – For Those Left Behind After the Digital Television Transition

The digital television conversion end game is upon us, and everyone seems to be getting a little testy.  Seemingly, not everyone is convinced that the consumer education efforts have prepared the public for the transition, and thus Washington seems to be preparing for problems.  But, in a last minute attempt to solve some of the potential issues, both Congress and the new Administration have stepped into the breach to put pressure on broadcasters and the FCC to be prepared to deal with the February end date for analog TV.  Congress passed legislation authorizing the FCC to allow some television stations in each market to continue to operate in analog after the end of the transition to tell consumers who didn’t make the switch what to do (an analog "life line service").  At the same time, Congress urged the FCC to mind the transition and not start off on new regulatory battles, causing the cancellation of this week’s FCC meeting.  In this event-filled 10 days, the new Obama administration also stepped into the DTV transition, a potentially significant issue that will face the new administration less than a month after taking office, pushing broadcasters, cable companies and direct broadcast satellite companies to pay for and establish phone banks to provide assistance to consumers stranded by the transition.

The cancellation of the Commission’s meeting was perhaps the strangest of these matters.  The FCC was prepared to hold a meeting later this week, with a full schedule of items to consider, including various items related, in one way or another, to the digital transition.  Included were a series of fines to broadcasters, consumer electronics stores, and others for not doing everything required by the rules to facilitate the digital transition.  The Commission was also planning to start the rulemaking process to authorize digital "fill-in" translators, i.e. low powered TV stations rebroadcasting a main station on other channels within the main station’s service area to fill holes in digital service.  Plus, the FCC was to deal with the Chairman’s proposals for a free wireless Internet service on channels being vacated by television stations as part of the transition.  Yet, Congressman Henry Waxman, the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Rockefeller, the newly appointed Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee ( the committees with responsibility over the FCC) wrote a letter to the FCC saying that it should concentrate its efforts on the transition, and not take up issues on which the new administration may want a role (perhaps the wireless service).  After receiving the letter, the December meeting was canceled (the first time in memory that the FCC did not have a monthly meeting as seemingly required by Section 5 of the Communications Act). 


Continue Reading Congress Throws an Analog Lifeline While Telling FCC to Deal With the DTV Transition and Cancel Meeting, While New Administration Pushes for Phone Banks for Consumer Complaints

With the final transition of television from analog to digital soon upon us, the FCC has scheduled for consideration at its November meeting two items that will address the use of the television spectrum after the transition – one designed to improve television reception, and the other viewed by television broadcasters as a threat to that reception.  The potential positive development is Distributed Transmission Service ("DTS").  The other proposal – which is far more controversial – is the proposal to authorize "white spaces devices" that operate wireless devices within the portion of the spectrum that will still be used by television stations after the transition.

DTS is the proposal that would allow television stations to use more than one transmitter to reach its service area.  Like the use of FM on-channel boosters, a DTS system would permit stations to use multiple transmitters located throughout their service area, each broadcasting on the same channel, but operating at a lower power than the traditional television station which usually operates from a single high-powered transmitter.  The idea is that, in digital, signals distributed from lower power transmitters spread throughout the service area might be less susceptible to signal impediments from terrain and building obstacles than would a single high-power transmitter.  The FCC proposed adoption of this system several years ago with little opposition, but it has languished.  Some have suggested that the experience in Wilmington, where some people who lived far from the center of the market were having over-the-air reception problems, gave new impetus to DTS as one way to provide better service to these more remote areas.


Continue Reading Issues on the Post-Transition Use of the Television Spectrum – White Spaces and Distributed Transmission Service (DTS)