FCC gives public TV 6 years to go digital

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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
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

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

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.

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