FCC gives public TV 6 years to go digital

Technicians observing wide DTV screen

Technologists are developing a new generation of equipment for the wide-screen standard. (Photo: Harris Corp.)

Originally published in Current, April 14, 1997

By Steve Behrens

The year 2003 doesn't seem so far off when you've got plenty to do in the meantime. Between now and then, public TV will raise funds for, install and turn on hundreds of digital TV transmitters.

In its order mandating a speeded-up digital transition, adopted April 3 [1997], the FCC gave public TV stations six years to add digital signals--at least a year longer than commercial stations. Some pubcasters will go digital long before that and others will have trouble doing it at all.

Responding to urgings from America's Public Television Stations and other commenters, the commission reduced power inequities among stations. The table of DTV channel allocations, expected to be released next week, will set DTV stations' maximum transmitter power no lower than 50 kilowatts and no higher than 1 megawatt--a 1:20 difference.

In comparison, the FCC's draft table last July proposed even larger power discrepancies in some cities, perpetuating the handicap of many low-power UHF stations, APTS complained. Public TV station WYES in New Orleans, for instance, had been limited to just 5.6 kw; New Jersey Network's New Brunswick outlet, 3.2 kw, and Chicago's WYCC, 1 kw, while nearby stations were to be allowed hundreds of times as much power.

With the fast-track timetable in hand, public TV is preparing to ask Congress for aid in making the transition. Transition funding is Topic No. 1 at the APTS Annual Meeting this week. And pubcasting's joint digital steering committee [earlier story] has hired Andersen Consulting to help plan for the transition, says Ann Burget, CPB's new manager of digital broadcast development.

Lobbyists aim to meet an early-September deadline for fiscal year 1999 budget proposals to the federal Office of Management and Budget, according to Burget.

Pubcasting's best hope for transition aid is to make common cause through the steering committee including CPB, PBS, APTS and NPR, says David Liroff, the committee spokesperson and WGBH's top digital planner.

"We were successful in maintaining our federal support because our audiences came to our rescue despite the fragmentation of the system," says Liroff, looking back at last year's funding struggle. But in the case of digital transition funds, "the issues are not likely to be sufficiently understood by our audiences for them to come riding to our rescue," he said. "We can't afford the kind of fragmentation that almost did us in last time around."

To help publicize the transition, PBS said last week that it is joining the Harris Corp., a major broadcast equipment manufacturer, in launching a 50-city touring exhibition to show off DTV technology. Starting this fall, the DTV Express road show will feature vehicles fitted out as the Classroom of the Future as well as the Living Room of Tomorrow.

In adopting its DTV rules and channel allotments this month, the FCC repeatedly came back to the idea of Santa Claus.

Chairman Reed Hundt said the commission's plan to free up 138 MHz of prime spectrum for deficit-cutting and police use will be "a pretty nice Christmas present for the American people."

And in arranging its DTV timetable the commission anticipated soaring sales of DTV receivers during the next few Christmas shopping seasons. By the 1998 holidays, 20-some stations in the top 10 markets have voluntarily pledged to have DTV signals on the air; the remaining commercial stations in those markets will be on by May 1, 1999.

And in time for Christmas 1999--by Nov. 1--commercial stations serving the top 30 markets, home to half of U.S. households, will turn on digital signals.

Commercial stations in smaller markets will have five years to go digital, and public TV will have six, in recognition that they may have trouble finding the money. "Measures may be adopted later to help them convert," said Gretchen Rubin of the FCC Mass Media Bureau. By then the analog stations will have just three years to live, under the FCC's new timetable.

No mandate for HDTV

Though upgrading TV technology to high-definition was once the driving reason for advanced TV, the commission finally came down with no requirement to use HDTV.

HDTV advocate Burnie Clark, president of Seattle's KCTS, is not worried that high-def will be forgotten, however, since the commercial networks are now pushing for it. They'd prefer to deliver one terrific picture than see further fragmentation of their audiences through multichannel DTV.

In fact, public TV may have to fend for its own interests in the design of equipment for the multichannel DTV option, says Clark.

The commission initially will require only that each TV broadcaster provide at least one free standard-definition (SDTV) service during its analog service hours. The station can use the rest of its spectrum for audio or data transmission or whatever suits its "best business judgment," an FCC release said.

Starting in the sixth year of the transition, the FCC will phase-in requirements that broadcasters simulcast the same programs on both analog and digital signals, said Rubin.

If broadcasters charge fees for receiving any services using the DTV channels, the FCC is authorized to levy fees on the broadcasters, Commissioner Rachelle Chong observed. But the commission has not yet addressed the matter of fees.

The commission said that DTV will be covered by existing public-interest rules, and that it reserves the right to adopt new ones for DTV.

To accommodate more stations, the FCC used Channels 2-51 to accommodate the new DTV channels, instead of 7-51, as it proposed last summer. In the process, the commission said it found room for 30 new DTV channels for stations that had begun operation or received construction permits since then, plus interference protection for 100 new analog stations (mostly without digital sister channels) for which applications had been filed.

For 93 percent of TV stations, their digital service areas will cover 95 percent of their present service areas; for half of stations, the new area will replicate 100 percent of the old. These "replication" figures make coverage seem worse than it will be, predicts PBS Engineering Committee Chairman Bruce Jacobs, because they don't take into account new areas of coverage that stations didn't have before.

When the digital transition ends and broadcasters turn back their old analog channels--now scheduled for 2006--the FCC will repack the DTV signals in Channels 2-46 or 7-51 and can auction off a "broad swathe of basically virgin spectrum," said Commissioner Susan Ness.

The swathes of surplus spectrum will be bigger and available sooner than once expected. The FCC will be able to recycle 60 MHz--Channels 60-69--almost immediately and another 78 MHz after nine years. Originally, it planned to recover about half as much spectrum--72 MHz total--after 15 years.

With four of the channels in the 60-69 band, the commission expects to satisfy police agencies clamoring for radio frequencies. The other six channels will be eyed for auctioning. The FCC will hold a separate proceeding on Channels 60-69.


Earlier story

Joint planners compile DTV 'to do' list

Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 1997

Reps of pubcasting groups with a toe, a nose or an entire limb in the digital TV world are organizing a joint planning effort to serve the field as DTV moves out of the lab and into the living room.

The joint effort will be coordinated by consultants and overseen by a steering committee, but most of the tasks will be parceled out to APTS, PBS and various other groups with an interest in DTV, according to reps who met Feb. 6 in Washington. Heads of CPB, PBS, APTS and NPR agreed to cooperate in digital planning during a top-level December meeting.

By summer the planners want to prepare a case for federal aid to help public TV buy equipment needed for the digital transition, says CPB Executive Vice President Bob Coonrod. If successful, the effort would lead to funding in the fiscal year 1999 federal budget.

That presentation must feature a compelling case for expanded programming and services, says PBS President Ervin Duggan, as well as technological improvement.

The planners will give stations information to help with decision-making, such as a series of options for different degrees of station involvement in DTV, along with cost and revenue estimates, according to Coonrod. The plan won't be "one size fits all," he says.

An interim steering committee includes reps from the national organizations, including NPR, as well as the CPB Future Fund advisory panel, the Digital Broadcasting Alliance of stations testing DTV transmission and the PBS New Technologies Working Group, among others. They plan to meet again in early March, but at some point they will be succeeded by a permanent steering committee, says Coonrod.

Broadcasters are now awaiting the FCC's revised table of channel assignments as well as operating rules, expected to be issued in April, according to Gary Poon, an attorney who directs PBS's DTV strategic planning office.

Also ahead are major debates over public-interest mandates on commercial broadcasters that accept digital transition channels. Vice President Al Gore said Feb. 5 that they should be obligated to carry certain unspecified kinds of public-interest programming. The White House will appoint an advisory panel to propose guidelines, but in the meantime the FCC will move ahead on DTV licensing.



To Current's home page

Current Briefing on the digital transition for public TV.

In its April 1998 channel allocations for DTV, the FCC gives a break to UHF stations (many of which are public TV).

Outside link: on FCC web page.


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