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FCC lowers power hurdle for stations going digital

Part 2 of a series, published in Current, Nov. 19, 2001
By Dan Odenwald

Hoping to reduce the expense of the digital transition, the FCC will let stations meet their on-air deadline by launching low-power transmitters, which are cheaper to build and operate than full-power rigs.

Into the bitstream: DTV & public televisionCommissioner Michael J. Copps says the rules, adopted Nov. 8 [2001], strike "a balance between moving the digital transition along" and "providing a measure of flexibility to stations" as they build their digital facilities. The FCC stuck with its construction deadlines: May 2002 for commercial stations and May 2003 for public TV.

Broadcasters cheered the revisions as evidence that the FCC is finally coming to terms with the realities of a slower-than-expected transition. The National Association of Broadcasters lobbied heavily for relief from these deadlines, which would have forced stations to spend millions of dollars building and powering full-power digital stations before many viewers have receivers.

"These rules make sense," says Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, v.p. of policy and legal affairs at APTS. "They allow stations to get on air for less money so we can meet the deadline."

Until the rule was changed, financially pressed stations would have lost their DTV channels if they didn't launch them at full power.

In another midcourse correction that will save transmitter power, the FCC dropped the date that stations were required to equal the reach of their analog signals--December 2004 for commercial TV and December 2005 for public. Under earlier rules, stations that failed to replicate the reach of their analog signals would lose FCC protection from interference by other spectrum users.

The FCC granted an additional reprieve by reducing minimum daily DTV broadcasting to the primetime hours, about 22 hours a week. By April 2003, however, stations will be required to broadcast in digital at least 50 percent of the time they're operating their analog signals. Two years later, stations will need to turn on their digital signals whenever they turn on their analog.

Low-power DTV signals will translate into huge savings for most stations, says John Tollefson, chief technology officer at PBS. If stations don't have the capital or operating funds to construct and maintain two channels, the lower power ruling lets them operate for less. "If I were one of those stations, I'd seriously consider lower power as an option, at least as a placeholder," he says.

Tollefson says certain lower power transmitters cost as little as $50,000 while full-power transmitters can cost half a million dollars or more. By reducing the reach of DTV signals, stations can significantly reduce electricity bills during the years when they broadcast both analog and digital signals.

"A lot of stations were holding back and planning not to go digital until the last moment," Tollefson says. "Some just flat out couldn't make the deadline." The new rules ought to encourage them to convert earlier.

Lewis Zager, WETA's v.p. of technology, believes the ruling may persuade some stations to delay buying costly permanent transmission hardware until later in the rollout. For example, stations could buy smaller antennas and place them on lower towers, Zager says. By the time they go full power, hardware costs likely will have fallen.

The new rules also were welcomed by stations already on the air, says David Welsh, v.p. of technology at KCPT in Kansas City, and many of them will consider scaling back their DTV services to cut costs.

Welsh says his station, which went digital in November 1998, will study the benefits of dropping KCPT's digital channel to a lower power. His station also could save money by cutting back on DTV programming. But there's risk in that: digital stations want to attract eyeballs, and eliminating programming isn't going to drive viewers into DTV showrooms, he says.

Among other updates of its policies, the commission will consider "financial hardship" when granting extensions of construction deadlines. To receive a waiver, stations must show that conversion costs will exceed their financial resources.

Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy says stations must clear a "high hurdle" to get these waivers. A station must show that it's made a "good faith effort" to meet the deadline. It won't be enough to point to a brief downturn in the economy, the FCC says.

The FCC declined to act on broadcasters' request for rules mandating cable carriage and TV sets that include digital tuners.

Until now, the bulk of the commission's DTV regulatory burdens have landed on broadcasters instead of cable and equipment companies, according to Mohrman-Gillis. At least the new rules relieve some of the burdens on broadcasters, she says.

What the FCC has done is "nothing more than a recognition of reality," Tollefson says. The new rules, he says, may help at-risk public TV stations "get over the hump."

 
 

To Current's home page
Related stories: Current Briefing on DTV and public television.
Outside links: FCC press release and text of order, Mass Media Docket 00-39.

Web page posted Dec. 5, 2001
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