FCC, congressional resolution needed for a systemic problem
By Joseph Widoff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/28/2002 8:00:00 PM
In light of reports carried in BROADCASTING & CABLE about recent reception problems at WBOC-TV Salisbury, Md., and suggestions that WHRO-TV's digital station, WHRO-DT Norfolk, Va., is at fault, I felt it important to provide another perspective. WHRO-TV is sympathetic to WBOC-TV's problems. Indeed, WHRO-TV is receiving interference from a North Carolina DTV station. But our problems are not unique. Other digital-to-analog interference complaints are pending at the FCC, and many more are expected as DTV stations come on the air and move to full power. This is an unfortunate but expected consequence of the DTV transition.
The big question before us as broadcasters (and also facing the FCC and Congress) is whether we have the resolve to continue the transition, even with some attendant risk to our current service. This question has national consequences, and we believe the FCC should therefore not rush to judgment or act in a vacuum in any individual case. Any FCC actions in this or other cases will have significant impact—for good or ill—on the digital transition.
Having spent six years at the Advanced Television Test Center and helped make WETA-TV Washington, D.C., one of the first DTV broadcasters, I understand the policy, technical and financial uncertainties that commercial and noncommercial broadcasters face. I also am aware of limitations of laboratory or limited field testing of new technology in predicting real-world effects. In spite of these uncertainties, I am proud that the two noncommercial stations with which I have been associated built full-power DTV stations early. Public-TV station WHRO-TV invested in good faith over $4.7 million to properly construct and activate maximized WHRO-DT facilities as authorized by the FCC and is spending an additional $5 million to rebuild its master-control and production facilities. Over 400 other commercial and noncommercial stations have now also acted in good faith to implement the DTV mandate.
Some time after WHRO-DT began operations, WBOC-TV began to experience intermittent interference and now claims that WHRO-DT is the exclusive source of that problem. WHRO-TV believes that it is probably contributing to periodic episodes of interference experienced by some WBOC-TV viewers as a result of "ducting," a problem that varies by season and time of day. It is still not clear, however, whether WHRO-DT is the sole source of the problem. Also, the problem appears to vary but is generally limited in scope, duration and severity. Yet WHRO-TV is being asked to forego its DTV investment and bear the cost of resolving the problem. This creates huge uncertainties for WHRO-DT's transitional service.
Even so, WHRO-TV has voluntarily reduced power and is working cooperatively with WBOC-TV to collect data to define the source and scope of the problem. Our fundamental position, however, remains clear: WHRO-TV played by the rules, invested substantial public and charitable resources in complying with FCC mandates, and should not be penalized either financially or through prolonged uncertainty affecting its transition to digital because of these unintended consequences.
It has now been more than 14 years since the FCC began its proceeding on advanced television and more than six years since it adopted its DTV ruling. Over 400 commercial and noncommercial DTV stations are now on the air. Public television alone has secured over $700 million in public and private funds for the conversion, without substantial funding from the federal government. Our public policy is now geared toward forcing the transition along.
The question before us is whether we will be resolute in moving to this new platform as quickly as possible or will be subjected to further fits and starts that will add more uncertainty to the market and potentially jeopardize the whole DTV effort. While the FCC and Congress may hope that issues such as the one facing WBOC-TV and WHRO-DT can be resolved by the parties, they cannot be excused from weighing in and ultimately settling the underlying, fundamental policy choice: Are we going to do this transition or not? Quite frankly, I thought that decision had been made back in 1996. I hope future actions don't show that I'm wrong.
I urge all of us in this industry, therefore, to address these problems as they occur, in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, cognizant of the fundamental issues, so that we can deliver to the American people the benefits of this incredible technology.
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