Half of public stations miss DTV sign-on deadline

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More than half of the country’s 357 public TV stations missed
the May 1 deadline to begin digital broadcasting, according to
APTS. As of late last week, only 163—just 46 percent of public
TV stations—had launched their DTV signals.

Not that it matters much. The 194 public stations that failed to flip
the switch are eligible to petition the FCC for two six-month extensions.
When commercial stations faced their deadline a year ago, two-thirds
missed it and the FCC freely issued waivers.

About 73 percent of TV households now have access to at least one digital
public TV signal, APTS says. But coverage may be limited in certain
markets as many stations went on the air with low-power signals.

APTS had predicted that two-thirds of public stations would meet the
deadline, but the association now says “some stations underestimated
the difficulty of getting across the finish line.” Many faced
technical problems, including severe winter weather that hindered tower
construction. Stations also reported a shortage of tower installation
crews and backlogs in delivery of transmission equipment, APTS says.

Four out of 10 stations cited legal hurdles, including challenges to
tower locations, zoning issues and problems with clearances from the
Canadian government.

About 40 stations that were to receive CPB aid for digital conversion
missed the deadline. By the time Congress released federal funding in
January, it was too late for many stations to complete the digital startup,
says Doug Weiss, CPB’s v.p. of system and station development.
In many cases, stations hadn’t decided which equipment to buy
with CPB dollars or, if they had, it couldn’t be delivered before
May 1.

“This is what we feared,” he says. Public TV started lobbying
Congress for digital money in 1997, to avoid the last-minute crush.

While most stations have told APTS they expect to be on the air a
year from now, at least nine indicate they’ll miss that date,
too. Stations that fail to convert by May 2004 must petition the FCC
individually for additional time.

A handful of stations that missed the deadline have neither filed for
extensions nor notified APTS of their transition status.

APTS hopes that the failure of so many stations to make the deadline
will persuade Congress of the need for more funding. The lobbying organization
says stations need more federal dollars to pursue matching funds and
hold capital campaigns.

The FCC last month eased another deadline, giving public TV stations
an extra six months to simulcast half of their analog programming on
their digital channels. The original deadline was May 1.

APTS had argued for an indefinite delay to give stations more time to
purchase equipment and work out the kinks with their new digital signals.
The FCC is reviewing the simulcast requirement as part of its periodic
review of DTV regulations.

The commission also granted a special waiver to Milwaukee Public Television
permitting the station to simulcast both of its analog channels on one
DTV signal, freeing the other for an all-high-definition service.

Early approvals by PTFP

To push DTV along, the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program
(PTFP) rushed $25 million in digital TV grants to 103 stations on April
30. The expedited grants come five months before PTFP usually announces
its awards. Grantees will match those federal dollars with $40 million
raised locally, according to PTFP.

“The sooner we get the dollars to them, the more it helps,”
says Clyde Ensslin, a PTFP spokesman.

The $25 million represents 58 percent of PTFP’s fiscal year 2003
appropriation of $43 million. An additional $16 million in radio and
TV equipment replacement grants will be announced this fall.

In addition to these projects, the program awarded $2.6 million to WNET
and WNYC-FM to rebuild their transmission facilities destroyed at the
World Trade Center.

The equipment grant program is operated by the National Telecommunications
and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce.

With these grants, PTFP has invested a total of $122 million in DTV
aid over the past six years. In the latest round of awards, it gave
56 grants to stations in 31 states.

The largest award of $1.8 million went to South Carolina ETV. Iowa PTV
received $1.2 million, the round’s second-highest award. Michigan’s
WDCQ/WDCP, Ohio’s WOUC and the Mississippi network received $1.1
million each.

The three New Mexico stations will share an award of $933,700, and
the 11 Texas stations will divide a $886,100 grant.

PTFP also awarded PBS $631,400 to purchase satellite DTV receivers
and decoders for distribution to 45 public TV stations nationwide.

Earlier article

Public TV’s digital transition: hunkered down but moving ahead

Originally published in
March 24, 2003
By Steve Behrens

With a little of its persistence and ingenuity, Ed Caleca was thinking,
public TV might turn on digital transmitters at 150 of its 357 sites
in time for the FCC’s May 1 on-air deadline.

Still, public TV engineers have moved ahead haltingly to put 103 digital
transmitters on the air, as of last week, reaching 62 percent of viewing
households, according to APTS. For others, activation is within reach:
Pubcasters have applied for six-month extensions for 192 additional

“There were bumps and grinds, for sure,” says Caleca.
Engineers in northern states have been stalled by snow, he says, and
others by delays in funding, equipment delivery and all the many approvals
required to put an entire transmission system on the air.

Still, because big-city stations have been signing on their digital
transmitters since 1997, public TV already has digital signals covering
62 percent of the viewing public.

An unknown number of additional stations are ready to sign on, but
simply waiting until the last minute to save money on their power bills,
Caleca speculates.

The other day in East Lansing, Mich., tower crews were hauling up
a 5,200-pound antenna that will radiate both the analog and digital
signals for WKAR. Gary Blievernicht, chief engineer, expects to meet
the May deadline. He summarizes the situation: “We’re all
just trying to muddle through.”

Even some of the smallest pubTV stations are nearly on schedule. Northern
Minnesota Public Television, which operates KAWE in Bemidji and KAWB
in Brainerd, is ready to go with its Brainerd transmitter and will put
up its Bemidji antenna by July, says Bill Sanford, g.m. and director
of engineering. Now he’s waiting for Minnesota Public Radio to
vacate leased space on the TV tower in Bemidji.

The licensee pulled together $3.2 million for its conversion from the
state, PTFP and its own reserves.

A video server and new automation software will let KAWE assemble two
multicasting channels locally—a Lakelands Classics channel of
primetime repeats and how-to shows, and a public affairs channel featuring
its nightly local newscast and the state legislature feed, according
to Sanford.
“Everybody’s just hunkered down and working, trying to get
this done,” says Sanford.

There are few signs of utter impoverishment. When Dow, Lohnes &
Albertson filed extension requests for 69 stations earlier this year,
“not a single one of them relied on, ‘Gee, we have not been
able to find the money,’” says attorney Todd Gray.

It helps that Congress has given $52 million to CPB in the last three
years, adding another funding source. Of that sum $51.4 million has
been obligated to more than 100 stations, according to CPB.

Digital stations No. 102 and 103 were the Biloxi and Oxford transmitters
of Mississippi ETV. APTS put out a press release when the total reached
100, as Pennsylvania State University’s WPSX went digital March

“We’ve done it, hurray!” says Kate Domico, director
of technology at WPSX.

The pieces of funding came together, with the state, feds and a capital
campaign contributing. Penn State will toss in a new building next year.
But Domico says WPSX needed more than a year to negotiate the site for
a 990-foot tower—twice the height of its present tower, in case
some cable systems don’t carry the signal. Later, a shortage of
tower crews delayed the start of construction for nine months.

Innovating in the midst of change

Instead of buying a few pieces of equipment each year, engineers during
the digital transition have to build entire broadcast systems while
components are still under development.

Located in hilly central Pennsylvania, WPSX is working with an engineering
consultant, Merrill Weiss Group, that’s developing a digital repeater
than can extend the station’s signal by repeating it on the same
broadcast channel instead of requiring a separate translator channel—a
commodity in short supply today.

The on-channel repeater to be tested at Penn State will bring WPSX’s
signal into the valley where the university is located, which the main
transmitter covers poorly, according to Domico. If all goes well, WPSX
may add on-channel DTV repeaters in Altoona and Johnstown.

Others have applied ingenuity to extend the life of equipment. In
Kentucky, the state public TV network worked with Hitachi to develop
a way to make a digital microwave system out of the old analog system
that connects its 15 transmitter sites. Now the digital system gives
Kentucky ETV’s analog signals the clean signal of a digital hookup,
says Bob Ball, director of transmission systems engineering.

Though high-definition TV is DTV’s big selling point for commercial
broadcasters, some pubcasters give it low priority for equipment spending.
Maine Public Broadcasting is waiting until later to upgrade its recorders,
switchers and other equipment to HD, says Gil Maxwell, Maine’s
senior v.p. of operations and technology and chairman of the PBS Engineering
Committee. “We can broadcast HD but we don’t need an HD
house,” he says. “We just splice into the HD feed from PBS.”

Producing a talking-head program in HD makes no sense to Maxwell. He’d
rather put Maine’s resources into creating standard-definition
multicasting streams.

“What I find exciting now is that we’re in the process
of defining our own environment here,” he says.

At the Maine network, which put its fifth and last DTV signal on the
air last month, engineers are working to improve digital multicasting.
Maxwell says many DTV receivers react poorly when stations turn off
their multicast channels when they switch to HD, or vice versa. In defining
the component channels in the DTV signal, he says, it’s safer
to maintain all of them in existence even when some are carrying no
pictures or sound. Technicians in Maine and elsewhere are experimenting
with “trickle-streaming” of notices telling viewers when
to expect programs to resume on a channel that’s now idle.

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