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FCC minimizes "second-move" headaches for DTV stations

Originally published in Current, March 2, 1998

By Steve Behrens

In its third and probably final set of channel assignments for digital TV, the FCC relieved a number of expected problems by adding five channels--2 through 6--to the "core" bandwidth that will be devoted to TV in the future.

This, along with rules that permit stations to boost power and use UHF beam-tilting antennas, is good news for pubcasters, said Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, v.p. of America's Public Television Stations (APTS), which lobbied hard for the expanded core, alongside other broadcasters. The core will now be Channels 2-51, instead of 2-46 or 7-51, as previously proposed.

The assignments, announced Feb. 18, will reduce from 55 to 38 the number of public TV stations whose DTV channels will be outside the "core" and would have to move their digital operations to another channel--the expensive and much-detested "second move."

This will also trim from 13 to three the number of really unfortunate public TV stations whose present channels are also outside the core and could not easily move their DTV operations to them when analog TV is switched off in eight years or so. Those poor souls are WGBY, Springfield, Mass.; KCSM, San Mateo, Calif., and WNVC, Fairfax, Va., according to APTS.

WGBY, which uses Channel 57 now and was given Channel 58 for DTV, pleaded for a better deal, but like most of the 231 petitioners was turned down by the FCC. "I hate it that we're in such a bad position," said General Manager Deborah Onslow, but she won't hang back from going digital. She plans to build a low-power, inexpensive DTV set-up and hopes to be able to re-use the equipment by moving to an upper-UHF channel when another station surrenders their old analog channel.

Expanding the core thinned out the stations in WGBY's predicament, and reduced interference problems, but not without cost--in both dollars and political currency. Republican Commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth objected to the five-channel "spectrum grab" on behalf of broadcasters, which reduces the bandwidth that can be auctioned off early in the next century to benefit the federal budget.

Despite broadcasters' proposals for extensive changes in the DTV channel plan, the commission ended up making only 71 revisions--mostly to reduce interference between adjacent DTV channels.

The channel changes disproportionately fell on public TV stations, which got 35 of the 71 revisions, according to Thomas Crockett, member services rep at APTS. It's not clear yet whether the changes were more often for better or for worse, he said.

Upside, downside of tilt beams

Though the FCC is hoping not to switch around any more DTV channels, it will let stations boost their power, raise their antennas or move their transmitters to improve coverage if the change doesn't add interference for too many viewers. The changes can't add interference for more than 2 percent of the population covered by the interfered-with station, and can't push interference beyond a total of 10 percent of the covered population.

The rules give a literal boost to UHF stations, including many in public TV. To avoid perpetuating the handicap suffered by DTV stations on UHF channels (14 and above), the commission permitted them to increase their radiated power to 200 kw--and, within their service area, up to 1000 kw--by using tilt-beam antennas, so long as they meet the new interference rules. By tilting their beam toward the ground, these antennas can concentrate a station's power within its official coverage areas.

This will benefit the stations that are first in their regions to do the engineering and commit to spending the extra money for these custom setups, says Harvey Arnold, top engineer at Maryland PTV, but "latecomers may be locked out" by the gains of early applicants.

If pubcasters are as laid back as usual, Arnold says, they're in trouble. "It's a wake-up call for public broadcasting," he says.

The tilt-beam opportunity cuts both ways, agrees Bruce Jacobs, technology chief at North Dakota's Prairie PTV network. Because more commercial broadcasters can afford the technology, public TV "may be more interfered-with instead of getting more power."

Where the FCC came around

A couple of public TV stations that mobilized to fight the FCC's previous channel assignments were able to get DTV channels inside the core, avoiding the "second move" problem.

Houston's KUHT persuaded the FCC to give it DTV Channel 9, as proposed in the first channel plan in July 1996, instead of Channel 53, which it got in the second plan in April 1997. The station pledged to hold down its power and prevent interference to another Channel 9, KTRE in Lufkin, Tex. General Manager Jeff Clarke recalls meeting with Lufkin emissaries last spring at a hamburger joint half way between Houston and Lufkin. By holding onto Channel 9, which is adjacent to KUHT's present Channel 8, the station expects to be able to multiplex the signals and broadcast them through the same transmission line and antenna, saving big money for equipment and avoiding the much higher power bills of a UHF channel.

Fourteen stations in eastern Washington and Idaho successfully petitioned the commission to shuffle their channels and keep them all within the core. The ABC affiliate in Spokane took the lead and many compromised on details to create a plan that would work for all, says Ken Segota, chief engineer for Idaho PTV's northern stations. His DTV signal in Coeur D'Alene, as a result, will be inside the core on Channel 45, instead of the previously proposed 56.

Less fortunate are a number of public TV stations that are losing coverage area with their DTV assignments. New York's WNET will reach 100,000 fewer people with its DTV Channel 61 than its analog Channel 13, by FCC estimate. But what really burns the station is the cost of running a UHF channel and then moving back to Channel 13 in a few years, says Ken Devine, managing director of facilities, engineering and broadcast operations.

Also disadvantaged are two public TV stations that lost coverage area, compared to their prospects under the FCC's previous assignment table. One is WQEX, Pittsburgh, the sister station that WQED has contracted to sell to a religious broadcaster (the transfer of license is pending and opposed by a Pittsburgh citizen's group). And the other is WLAE, the small New Orleans station closely associated with the Catholic Church. By the FCC's estimate, WLAE's digital coverage will drop 2 percent.

"At this point," says WLAE General Manager Jim Kelley, "for plus or minus 2 percent, I'm not worried."

In other developments:

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To Current's home page

Current Briefing on public TV and the digital transition.

Later news: PBS and Harris Corp. begin a dog-and-pony show to acquaint the public, and broadcasters, with digital TV, March 1998.

Outside links: FCC's press release and complete new table of assignments on the commission's web site, and text of FCC's order giving its latest decisions on DTV rules.

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