FCC Admits DTV Disruptions Likely

Commissioners consider test market to work out bugs
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With only about a year to go before the DTV changeover, the FCC last week issued its final technical rules of the road.

And because the commission has put a premium on making sure that every station is transmitting a digital signal by Feb. 18, 2009, it also conceded that some pre-transition disruption of broadcast TV service was probably unavoidable.

“In light of the fast-approaching hard date for analog turn-off,” the commission report said last week, “the significant public interest in ensuring that stations meet the transition deadline now weighs in favor of permitting early reduction or termination of analog service where necessary to facilitate the transition.”

That means some analog viewers may want to apply for their DTV-to-analog converter boxes ASAP in case one of their favorite stations pulls the plug on analog early. Few stations are likely to go that route. But there is another woe: DTV viewers on the fringes of a station's service area may not get those pretty DTV pictures for months after the transition date because stations won't be up to full power at the beginning.


The FCC says there's no wiggle room—no waivers or even extensions—to stretch the deadline for cutting off analog broadcasts. But the commission said it would allow some stations to cut off analog service early, or discontinue it for several weeks at a time to make sure they are broadcasting a digital signal by the due date. It will also give stations some flexibility about how strong a DTV signal they deliver after the transition, so long as they are delivering it digitally.

Stations cutting off analog service won't even have to seek a waiver from the commission so long as they let the FCC and viewers know when it is happening.

“This provision gives stations substantial flexibility to temporarily reduce or cease analog or digital service pre-transition,” the FCC said.

That was one victory for broadcasters. As recently as 10 days before the FCC released the rules, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), the group that lobbies for broadcasters' spectrum interests, had been meeting with the legal assistants to all the commissioners, according to documents filed with the FCC, asking for an easy notification policy.

Republican and Democratic commissioners alike talked of the flexibility the rules provided broadcasters. “It is too late in the game to put broadcasters under unduly tight restraints as they rush to complete so much work in so little time,” said Democrat Jonathan Adelstein.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that the commission provided broadcasters with “the flexibility they need while at the same time ensuring that any disruption to over-the-air viewers is minimized to the fullest extent possible.”


Perhaps, but broadcast spectrum policy trackers at the MSTV were still going over the fine print at presstime.

While any movement on new rules is a step in the right direction, whether the new rules provide broadcasters with the flexibility they say they need remained an open question at this point in the process. There are hundreds of stations with tower or power issues that have been waiting for the FCC document to know how to proceed.

For example, the commission will allow stations to reduce their DTV coverage areas in the initial days of all-digital broadcasting to deal with issues like switching from a side-mounted to top-mounted antenna. But the commission will require them to go through a waiver process that could lead to the kind of delays the FCC was looking to avoid.

Broadcasters will be able to give the FCC an idea of their potential problems next month. In fact, they will be required to. As part of the new rules, all stations must file a report by Feb. 18 updating their progress, then report again in October.

Broadcasters looking for any extra time to broadcast in analog after the transition won't get it. The FCC was clear on that, saying that any full-power station caught broadcasting in analog after midnight Feb. 17, 2009, would be considered operating without a license and subject to sanctions.


And while the FCC is committed and congressionally mandated to the transition date, there was talk last week of creating a test-bed market for the switch , a sort of digital Dixville Notch, N.H., the hamlet that on election night every four years votes at midnight and gives the first snapshot of how the race for the White House is going.

Commissioner Michael Copps favors the test market, and said last week he feared that finalizing the rules was a year overdue. Copps has touted Britain's phased-in DTV transition, and said last week that the chairman and other commissioners have agreed to at least talk about possibly creating a DTV demonstration project, though he conceded there are technical and policy hurdles.

“My greatest concern is for over-the-air viewers who are unprepared for the DTV transition and wake up to no TV service at all on Feb. 18, 2009,” Copps told B&C last week. “But I'm also concerned about the possibility of viewers losing access to even some of their local stations for some period of time—either before or after the transition date. Given the size and scope of the transition, some disruption is probably inevitable. But I believe we could have significantly reduced the potential disruption had we set the rules of the road earlier.”

A Copps aide said that commission staffers were hoping to get together late last week—no more than two FCC commissioners are allowed to get together outside of public meetings—to try to figure out how a test could be pulled off, given the logistics and the narrowing window of opportunity.

If the FCC were to test the DTV switch, the market would have to be small enough so the commission would be able to collect and analyze the results quickly. It would also need to be a special place that included sufficient numbers of the elderly, minorities and the poor, who are expected to be most inconvenienced by the transition.

Given that the DTV-to-analog coupons won't even start being handed out until February, the time window is short, but Commissioner Copps said he thought it was doable.

“There is still time to conduct one or more test markets,” he said, “although I recognize it will take a concentrated effort and a commitment in the near future.”

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