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

As the Obama administration fills its top level government posts, all eyes are now turning to the next levels of government appointments which, at some point, will include a new Chair of the FCC and potentially other new FCC Commissioners. We wrote about our hopes for an Obama administration at the FCC immediately after the election, and now other voices in Washington are weighing in. And, as one might expect, with so many different perspectives, the advice is far from consistent. As we wrote in our analysis, the appointment of the FCC Chair is crucial as it is the FCC Chair, far more than the President or the White House, who sets the tone for Communications policy. This is made clear by the extensive regulations either adopted or proposed for broadcasters by the current Republican FCC, seemingly at the direction of the current chairman, regulations that would not have been expected from a Republican administration.  In light of the economic challenges facing broadcasters, as evidenced by today’s news that two television companies – Tribune and Equity – declared bankruptcy, and another, NBC, has announced a cut back in prime time programming, replacing it with a prime time, 5 day a week Jay Leno program. 

So what should the transition team look to accomplish at the FCC?  In one of the most perceptive articles that I’ve seen recently, Harry Jessell in TV Newsday has urged the new Commission to simply do nothing on broadcast regulation for the next year. The current state of the economy and its ramifications for the advertising that is the lifeblood of the broadcast industry simply leaves no room for broadcasters to have to bear new costs for new regulations.  Broadcasting and Cable magazine has echoed that sentiment last week.  Recently, not only have we seen the economy and the state of the broadcast industry been reflected by the actions announced by Tribune, Equity and NBC today, but we’ve seen numerous mainstream press articles about the economic peril in which the entire broadcast industry finds itself.  In one recent article, radio’s dramatic decline in revenues was highlighted, even as the industry’s listenership remains high (as confirmed by BIA’s recent prediction that radio revenues will decline by 7% in the coming year, coming after declines this year – perhaps the first two year decline in revenues in radio history). I recently attended the Radio Ink Forecast 2009 conference in New York.   While the conference is off the record, I don’t think that I’d be betraying any confidences to state that there was much concern about the short term health of the radio industry. 

Continue Reading As the FCC Transition Progresses, The Broadcast Industry Shows Economic Strains – Tribune and Equity Declare Bankruptcy and NBC Cuts Programming Costs By Putting Leno on at 10 PM, Five Days A Week

Today FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin released a tentative agenda for the scheduled December 18, 2008 Open Commission Meeting.  The tentative agenda, available here, contains a number of items that the Chairman has circulated to the other Commissioners for consideration at the upcoming Open Meeting.  Whether these items actually make it to the agenda

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)

It’s been a week since Wilmington, North Carolina became the first television market in the country to have virtually all of its television stations convert to digital – ceasing their analog operations.  The FCC, NAB and local stations all concentrated great resources in Wilmington in order to ensure that the transition was smooth and, while most observers believe that disruption was minimal, there are some who remain concerned about the results of the Wilmington experiment, and whether it can be replicated in other television markets.  While the FCC ramps up its efforts to promote the digital television transition around the country, one Commissioner has suggested several other steps that should be taken (including leaving an analog lifeline for those people who don’t get the message), and Congress is set to weigh in on the issues over the next two weeks.  All in all, the push is on for the February 17, 2009 transition to digital.

One of the most thought provoking commentaries on the transition comes from Harry Jessell, editor of TV Newsday.  In a commentary published last Friday, Jessell computes that the complaints in Wilmington amounted to about 5% of the television households in that market.  If that pattern was to be repeated in all markets around the country, Jessell computes that there would be about 1.7 million homes that will miss the transition and be without TV service on February 18.  Jessell further figures that this is a best case number, as all of the publicity showered on Wilmington will not be available in the remainder of the country, and there will likely be more technical problems in other markets with more irregular terrain than Wilmington (which is mostly flat coastal plain) and where TV towers are in different locations.  Jessell suggests several steps – including staggered cut-off dates to avoid overloading national DTV hotlines, more education on antenna issues (one of the major issues in Wilmington), and more "soft-tests" (stations ceasing analog operations for limited periods to see if their viewers are ready for the transition). It is a commentary worth reading.

Continue Reading Digital Television Conversion is a Reality in Wilmington NC – Publicity Ramps Up Around the Country While Issues of Readiness are Raised

The Digital Television conversion has allowed the FCC to reclaim significant portions of the TV spectrum for wireless and public safety uses – television channels above 51 will no longer be used for broadcast TV at the end of the analog to digital transition.  But, as part of the FCC’s Diversity proceeding (see our post here), a proposal dealing with the other end of the TV spectrum is being considered – whether to remove Channels 5 and 6 from the television band and instead use these channels for FM radio.  These channels are adjacent to the lower end of the FM band.  Because of this adjacency, the existence of TV Channel 6 in a market can limit the use of the lowest end of the FM band (used for Noncommercial Educational stations) to avoid interference to the TV station.  Similarly, Channel 6’s audio can be heard on many FM radio receivers, a fact that has recently been used by some LPTV operators to use their stations to deliver an audio service that can be received by FM radios (see our post on this subject).  In comments filed in the Diversity proceeding, parties have taken positions all across the spectrum – from television operators who have opposed using the channel for anything but television, to those suggesting that the channels be entirely cleared of television users and turned into a digital radio service.  Proposals also suggest using the band for LPFM operations, and even for clearing the AM band by assigning AM operators to this band to commence new digital operations.

In comments that our firm submitted on behalf of a group of noncommercial FM radio licensees who also rebroadcast their signals on a number of FM translator stations, we suggested that Channel 6 could provide a home for LPFM operations, instead of trying to squeeze those stations into the existing FM band.  There are currently proposals to squeeze more LPFM stations into the FM band by supplanting some FM translators (see our summary of some of those proposals here).  In these comments in the Diversity proceeding, we pointed out that, as there are currently radios on the market that receive 87.9, 87.7 and even 87.5, using these three channels for LPFM service would provide an immediate home to these stations, and far more opportunity for than LPFM would have in the already congested FM band.  These opportunities would exist even in most of the largest radio markets in the country, except in the handful of markets where a Channel 6 television station will continue to operate after the digital transition.  By adopting this proposal, the service that would be provided by FM translators would not be threatened. 

Continue Reading What to Do With TV Channels 5 and 6 – Proposals to Turn Them Over to Radio Services