Lower-powered DTV systems stir debate

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Lower-power equipment and lenient Federal Communications Commission rules offer a relatively inexpensive
option for launching digital service, but owners should evaluate very carefully
whether turnkey systems offered by several manufacturers are the right solution
for their TV stations, according to one broadcast attorney.

"It's a mistake to believe that low-power equipment is a panacea for getting
on the air," Washington broadcast attorney Tom Van Wazer said during an NAB 2002
panel discussion in Las Vegas.

Many broadcasters are looking for a solution to their digital-television
woes. A conventional digital facility costs roughly $3 million -- a frightening
price tag for small-market broadcasters when almost all of them are taking
economic hits and almost none of their viewers own sets that can receive digital TV.

The high cost of a digital build-out is behind perhaps half of the 800-plus
requests stations filed with the FCC to delay their May 1 digital-inauguration
deadline.

The commission already offered some help last fall when it said that initially,
stations need only reach their city of license with digital TV, rather than replicating
their entire analog coverage areas. Consequently, manufacturers are offering digital-TV -transmission systems priced as low as $50,000 for as few as 1,000 watts.

Although low-powered turnkey systems allow stations to comply with FCC rules,
that's about all they offer, Van Wazer said. "These facilities will not give you
the ability to get reliable signals into viewers houses," he added.

Ultimately, he predicted, stations will save little money because the systems
must be junked or relegated to backup roles.

But George DeVault, president of Holston Valley Broadcasting Corp., which owns
WKPT-TV Kingsport, Tenn., was more upbeat on the prospects for the low-powered
system his station installed.

The $124,000 system now offers two standard-definition digital signals
available at 5,400 watts to 440,000 people, or 82 percent of the Kingsport
area's residents. To reach the 94,000 residents residing in the mostly
mountainous area, remaining portions would require a 200,000-watt
transmitter, DeVault said.

He conceded that reception would be spotty for viewers relying on indoor
antennas, but the early adopters who have digital-TV sets today don't mind attaching
the rooftop antennas necessary with the weaker-powered transmitters, he argued,
adding: "A big signal isn't needed right now."

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