LoPo TV Warning: White Space Devices Are Coming - Have You Updated Your CDBS Information?

Special CDBS website unveiled as FCC tries to help rebroadcasting low power stations secure the protection to which they’re entitled.

If you’re the licensee of an LPTV or a TV Translator or a Class A TV station – collectively for our purposes here, “low power stations” – that rebroadcasts the over-the-air signal of another station, the FCC’s trying to help you out.   In the near future, TV white space devices will take to the air, creating a potential source of interference to your ability to receive the signals you rebroadcast. As the FCC proceeds with tests of databases to control those white space devices, it has simplified the steps necessary to ensure the protection to which you are entitled from those devices.

White space devices, as we hope you know by now, operate in locally vacant TV channels. They are required to protect not only household TV reception but also various other facilities, including some (but not all) low power stations that rebroadcast the signals of other TV stations. These stations receive two kinds of protection. White space devices (except for those at very low power) are not permitted to operate inside or close to the stations’ service contours – a matter not at issue here. Also protected, and the subject of this post, are the receivers these stations use to pick up the signal of the originating station for rebroadcast.

White space devices will have to consult a special database to identify available channels. That database in turn will draw on CDBS to identify low-power stations whose receivers are entitled to protection.

A public notice announces a special web page at which qualifying stations can register their receiver channels into the FCC’s CDBS system.

For protection purposes, low power stations fall into one of three distinct situations:

  1.  Low power stations located within the protected service contour of the originating station they rebroadcast – these low power stations are automatically protected under the umbrella of the originating station.
  2. Low power stations located outside the protected service contour of their originating stations, but within 80 km of the originating station’s service contour – these low power stations are entitled to protection from white space devices, but only if the low power station’s facilities have been properly entered in CDBS.
  3. Low power stations located more than 80 km beyond their originating station’s protected service contour – these low power stations are not entitled to protection unless the FCC has granted a waiver.

The FCC reminds low power stations, particularly those in the second group described above above (or in the third group with waivers), to make sure that their CDBS entries are current and correct. When full-power stations changed channels as part of the 2009 digital transition, and low power stations adjusted their receivers accordingly, many forgot to tell the FCC. Since protection of those receivers from white space devices will be dependent on the information for those stations in CDBS, this is a good time to visit the FCC’s new web page and make sure all the information there is current and accurate.

TV "White Space" Devices Go Nationwide

New action follows December roll-out to eastern states.

TV “white space” devices, which operate on an unlicensed basis in locally vacant TV spectrum, are now authorized nationwide. This is pretty fast, by Government standards; just last December the FCC okayed the first large-scale roll-out to seven eastern states plus Washington, D.C. The class of approved coordinators for the database these devices rely on to find open channels is growing much more slowly. Also growing slowly is the number of FCC-approved devices that can use the service; we count just five so far.

FCC Approves "White Space" Devices in Eastern U.S.

New systems must protect many other services from interference.

Fully four years after adopting rules for unlicensed TV Band Devices (TVBDs), also called “white space” systems, the FCC has authorized roll-out beyond the two small test areas previously approved. Touted by advocates as “Wi-Fi on steroids,” TVBDs can now boot up in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, and North Carolina.

The FCC expects to extend authorization nationwide by mid-January.

TVBDs are required to avoid causing interference to multiple services: broadcast TV; fixed broadcast auxiliary service links; receive sites for TV translators, low power TVs, Class A TVs, and multichannel video programming distributors; public safety and private land mobile; offshore radio telephone; radio astronomy; and “low power auxiliary service,” which includes licensed (and some unlicensed) wireless microphones. 

The complexity of the TVBD rules results from the need to ensure that all of these services can operate unharmed. In many metropolitan areas having multiple TV channels and heavy use of wireless microphones, vacant spectrum for TVBDs is already scarce. The FCC’s ongoing plans to consolidate TV broadcasters onto fewer channels, so as to free up more spectrum for wireless use, will only make things worse.

Simultaneously with the spread of TVBDs into the Middle Atlantic states, the FCC expanded its registration program for wireless microphones from those same states out to the rest of the country, keeping the wireless mic registrations a step ahead of the TVBD roll-out.

FCC Launches Nationwide Registration of Wireless Microphones

Registration is needed to protect qualifying events from interference caused by TV Band Devices

The FCC has expanded its registration program for wireless microphones from the Middle Atlantic states to the rest of the country.   Registration helps to protect qualifying wireless microphones that operate in vacant TV channels from interference caused by TV Band Devices (TVBDs), also called “white space” systems, that likewise use vacant TV slots.

When the FCC established rules for TVBDs, it required those devices to avoid interfering not only with TV stations, but also with several other categories of equipment operating on TV frequencies. The most populous of those, by far, are the wireless microphones that are ubiquitous in TV, stage, and film production.

Most wireless microphones used in TV and films are licensed by the FCC.  Most others – including those used in stage shows, churches, and the FCC meeting room – operated illegally until January 2010, when the FCC authorized low-power models on an unlicensed basis by waiver. (As it considers whether to make those rules permanent, the FCC recently sought to update the record on wireless microphone issues generally.)

Two TV channels in every market are closed to TVBDs, so as to leave room for wireless microphones. Licensed wireless microphones needing additional channels are entitled to interference protection from TVBDs. So are unlicensed microphones on other channels, but only if used for major sporting events, live theatrical productions and shows, and similar occasions that require more microphones than the set-aside channels can accommodate.

To implement protection, qualified events must register in the database that controls which frequencies TVBDs can use at each location. The FCC has authorized the operation of TVBDs in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, and North Carolina, and expects nationwide authorization by mid-January. Those who distribute or use wireless microphones should make sure any needed registrations are in place before TVBDs are deployed in their vicinity.

The details of the registration process are available here. The conditions and procedures are complex; and the FCC cautions that most uses of unlicensed wireless microphone do not qualify for registration. We recommend planning ahead.

Update: Revised "White Space" Rules To Take Effect June 18

Last month we reported on an FCC action that may mark the end of the decade-long “white space” proceeding authorizing the operation of some unlicensed devices in the broadcast television bands. The Commission’s Third Memorandum Opinion and Order (3rd MO&O), released in early April, disposed of a handful of petitions for reconsideration of the agency’s 2010 decision which had in turn tweaked technical “white space” specs adopted back in 2008. The 3rd MO&O has now been published in the Federal Register, which means that, barring any extraordinary intervening event (like the issuance of a stay – the approximate likelihood of which is pretty much zero), the rules as modified last month will take effect on June 18, 2012

Dead Men File No KidVid Reports

Tales from the crypt: Video Division reaches into grave to yank Class A tickets

 We have previously written about the Commission’s apparent quest to move as many Class A television stations back into the LPTV category as possible.  Presumably this quest is motivated by the Commission’s seemingly all-consuming urge to free up as much TV spectrum as possible for “repurposing”. 

That urge has now driven the Commission’s Video Division to reach into the grave to take a couple of Class A authorizations back from a dead guy. (The two orders may be found here and here.)

The case involves two Class A – er, one-time Class A, at least as of today – stations in Texas licensed to a gentleman named Humberto Lopez. Back in March, 2011, when the stations were both still card-carrying members of the Class A Universe, the Video Division asked how come Mr. Lopez apparently hadn’t filed children’s TV reports (FCC Form 398) for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Commission records revealed no such reports, so the reasonable assumption was that no such reports had been filed – but the March, 2011 inquiries were designed to give Mr. Lopez the chance to set things straight.

Wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Lopez died in May, 2011, within a month or two of the FCC’s inquiries. It’s hard to respond to FCC questions where you’re, um, dead.

The Commission followed up its March, 2011 inquiries with more inquiries in August, 2011. By then, of course, Mr. Lopez was long gone, although, in fairness, the Commission may not have been aware of the licensee’s unfortunate demise at that point.

But the Commission was for sure aware of his demise by November, 2011, when the executor of gone-but-not-forgotten Mr. Lopez’s estate filed an application (FCC Form 316) for consent to the assignment of the license to the executor. Such applications are standard operating procedure; they are routinely granted in a matter of days.

Not so in this case. According to CDBS, that 316 is still pending, more than five months after it was filed.

Of course, until that application is granted, Mr. Lopez technically remains the licensee, and his executor (who is not the licensee) is technically not in a position to respond to inquiries directed to the licensee.

So what does the Video Division do? Knowing that the licensee is dead, and knowing also that the licensee’s executor is not in a position to formally respond to Commission inquiries addressed to the licensee, the Video Division issued show cause orders to Mr. Lopez in February, 2012. Those orders proposed to reclassify the two Class A stations to LPTV status. 

To no one’s great surprise, Mr. Lopez, being dead and all, did not respond to those orders.

And now the Division has held that, because of his lack of response, the Division will “deem him to have accepted the modification of [his licenses] to low power television status”.

We understand that the Commission is on what it perceives to be a desperate quest for TV spectrum. And we get that Class A stations that no longer qualify for Class A status may look like low-hanging fruit in that quest. But really, is the Commission so desperate that it has to engage in grave-robbing?  Since Mr. Lopez had been dead for nearly a year by the time the Division issued its show cause orders, isn’t it more than a little inappropriate for the FCC to draw any conclusions from his failure to respond to those orders?

It may be true that the late Mr. Lopez failed to file KidVid reports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t air the programming or place appropriate reports in his public files. Wouldn’t it be at least fair (not to mention decent) to grant the Form 316 application and then accord the new licensee a reasonable time to investigate the situation and respond accordingly? 

In the alternative, shouldn’t the Commission try to check – maybe with a Ouija board – exactly what the licensee meant by not responding?

FCC Adjusts "White Space" Rules

Minor changes may signal an end to almost a decade of rulemaking.

The FCC has released yet another decision in its long-running effort to implement rules allowing unlicensed “white space” devices in the television bands. The latest revision does not represent any wholesale changes, but will make it easier for some devices to operate.

White space devices (TV Band Devices or TVBDs, in the FCC’s nomenclature) rely on the fact that every location has some TV spectrum not being used. Those vacant frequencies typically show up as white spaces on a map of spectrum occupancy – hence the name. Technical studies show that properly controlled unlicensed devices can use these channels without causing interference to TV operation and other authorized users, including wireless microphones.

Following a Notice of Inquiry late in 2002, and a 2004 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC first adopted rules allowing white space devices in 2006, but left the technical specifics for a later date. Those came in 2008, and then in 2010 the FCC responded to petitions for reconsideration with a number of revisions. Now the FCC has addressed petitions for reconsideration of the 2010 order.

The rules categorize each white space device as either fixed or mobile. A fixed device must have its location either professionally programmed in or determined by an on-board GPS device, and is subject to limits on operating power, antenna height, and antenna gain limits. Before operating, it must query a database of available spectrum for its location. A mobile device may similarly use GPS to determine its location and then query a database (Mode II devices); alternatively, it can contact another white space device that will in turn query the database (Mode I devices). The FCC has so far approved ten private companies to administer the databases, of which two have completed testing to the FCC’s satisfaction.

In its recent order disposing of the petitions for reconsiderations, the Commission provided the following changes and clarifications:

 Antenna Height. The 2010 rules limited fixed device antenna heights to a maximum of 30 meters above ground, and the height above the average terrain (HAAT) to no more than 76 meters. Several parties requested reconsideration of this restriction, particularly the HAAT portion. (According to one, the majority of the state of West Virginia would have been off-limits.) The FCC now allows fixed white space devices to have antennas up to 250 meters above average terrain, although still no more than 30 meters above ground level. At the same time, the FCC revised the separation distances between fixed white space devices and television contours to allow for the greater HAAT, but left unchanged the separations for wireless microphones and the exclusion zones around MVPD, LPTV, and BAS receive sites.  A device that provides database information to Mode I portable devices must comply with the previous HAAT limitations, so as to keep the Mode I device from straying too far from a known location.

Out-of-Band Emissions: The 2010 rules limited out-of-band emissions to 72.8 dB below the device’s highest in-band emissions. Now the out-of-band emissions are relaxed to 72.8 dB below the maximum power allowed within the 6 MHz bandwidth. The new order also cuts back the required occupied bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, so as to ease the roll-off at the channel edges, and slightly increases the allowable power spectral density so as to leave total power unchanged.

Channel 52 Protection:  As part of the transition to digital television, the FCC auctioned former TV channels 52 and above for wireless use. The wireless companies have long sought restrictions on channel 51 TV operation to protect their frequencies just above, and similarly requested limits on white space devices on channel 51. The FCC refused, partly on procedural grounds, and partly on the principle that white space devices, being unlicensed, are already required to protect licensed wireless operations.

Classes of Devices: The FCC rejected a new class of white space device, similar to “Mode II” but for indoor use only, without GPS capabilities. The FCC feared these could be easily moved without updating their locations, thus creating interference. It also found the new class to be largely unnecessary, as Mode I portable devices may operate without geolocation (although they must query a Mode II or fixed device periodically).

Confidentiality of Database Information: The FCC makes publicly available all information required to be included in the databases that white spaces devices must search before operating.  A cable association asked the FCC to withhold certain data, including coordinates of cable headends and towers, claiming this type of equipment was “critical infrastructure” that could be subject to terrorist attack. The FCC disagreed with the premise and refused the rule change.

Finally, the FCC clarified two points. It emphasized that LPTV, television translator, and Class A television stations will have their receive sites protected based on the coordinates available in the existing CDBS database. The FCC will create a new web interface so that broadcasters can update the information. Second, the recent order corrects the coordinates of certain radio astronomy sites, which must be included in white spaces databases and protected by white spaces devices.

Most of the rule changes will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. Revisions to the filing of receive site information and entry of other information into the white spaces databases require OMB sign-off, and will probably take a few months longer.   Check back here for updates.

So far all of these rules control only a limited deployment in Wilmington, NC. But with the rules approaching final form, and more databases coming on line, white space devices may finally take the big step from PowerPoint to reality.

More Steps Toward TV Band Clearing

Sixteen more Class A stations face the loss of their Class A status.

The thinning of the ranks of Class A TV stations continues.  We reported recently that the FCC has started to propose the downgrading of a number of Class A television stations to LPTV status, presumably to make room for the almighty broadband to take over TV spectrum.  The stations targeted in the first round of that effort had (a) failed to file Children’s TV Reports and (b) failed to respond to FCC’s inquiries about the whereabouts of those reports.  (The Commission later fined a number of other stations which had also failed to file kidvid reports; they escaped the dreaded downgrading because they had at least responded to the FCC’s inquiries.)

Another 16 Class A’s now face the prospect of being demoted to LPTV status. 

Like the stations we’ve already reported on, the latest batch of targeted Class A’s got onto the FCC’s radar by not filing Children’s TV Reports.  In response to the FCC inquiry about those missing reports, each of the three licensees (one holding 13 licenses, another two, and a third one) acknowledged their respective failures to file.  Each also acknowledged that their stations had operated, at most, only sporadically over the last several years.  Two blamed the economy for the extended darkness; one claimed that its non-operation – its two stations had operated a total of less than four months in the last five years – arose from a “need to locate permanent transmitter sites”.   Two of the three licensees’ responses also indicated that their stations no longer had main studios (much less public files located their main studios).

In order to qualify for Class A status, a licensee must maintain a main studio and broadcast a minimum of 18 hours per day, with an average of at least three hours weekly of locally-produced programming and three hours of children’s programming.   From the responses described above, the Commission concluded that none of the 16 stations still qualified to be Class A – accordingly, they’re looking to be downgraded.

The FCC suggests that Class A stations who find themselves temporarily unable to meet the minimum regulatory requirements for Class A status may, in some circumstances, be eligible for special temporary authority to operate at variance from those requirements.  But such STA would be only temporary, and would not cover extended time periods of noncompliance, particularly when the reason for the STA is financial distress.  The Commission is particularly skeptical about stations that close their main studios and/or de-construct their transmission facilities. The result of this strict approach, of course, is to impose the greatest hardship on the most vulnerable. 

The other side of the argument is that no one is proposing to take away licenses; rather, all that’s involved here is a status downgrade (from Class A to LPTV), which still allows the stations to resume operation.  Whether there is a difference between taking away the license and taking away only Class A status remains to be seen after we know more about the prospects of space remaining for LPTV stations after implementation of the FCC’s plan to truncate the TV spectrum by 10-20 channels.

Missing KidVid Reports Lead to $13K Fines for Class A Stations

FCC is an equal opportunity whacker when it comes to doling out fines.

Last month we posted about the FCC’s apparent effort to thin the ranks of Class A stations, presumably to free up spectrum for broadband.  The targets there were 16 Class A licensees who had not filed all their Children’s TV Reports (FCC Form 398) and who did not respond to the FCC’s letters of inquiry about that failure.  As we suggested then, it wasn’t clear how the Commission planned to deal with Class A licensees who hadn’t filed the required reports but who had responded to the FCC’s inquiries by demonstrating that they had in fact (a) aired kids’ programming and (b) followed up by filing appropriate (albeit late) reports.

Now we know.

It looks like the price tag is going to be $13,000 (per station, not per licensee).  In each of three Notices of Apparent Liability, the Media Bureau has fined the targeted licensee $3,000 for failure to file reports and $10,000 for not having the reports in the public file.  One of the licensees in question has two stations – so it got hit for a total of $26,000.  You can read the FCC’s Notices here, here and here.

The amount of the fines does not appear to vary according to the number of Children’s TV Reports that may have been missed.  One targeted licensee missed 17 reports, another 16, another eight – but they all got the same fine on a per station basis. 

Perhaps more importantly, the amount of the fines does not vary according to the size of the licensee.  An individual licensee holding only three Class A/LPTV stations is treated the same as a large corporate licensee with a score of full power stations.  While little guys can try to get their fines reduced by pleading poverty, the FCC has historically been unwilling to reduce any fine that does not exceed about 5%-7% of the station’s gross revenue, without regard to profitability.  We know of one instance where the FCC’s disinclination to consider the practical economic hardship its fines impose directly resulted in a station’s having to lay off employees to fund the payment. 

The government’s need for revenue marches forward.  And you thought that the FCC’s agenda was about job creation….

First Steps Toward TV Band Clearing Start

Commission moves to downgrade primary Class A stations to more vulnerable secondary LPTV status.

With the spectrum auction legislation now in effect, the FCC is turning to the task of clearing TV spectrum for wireless broadband.  As we all know, that will involve some shuffling, since full power and Class A television stations have rights as primary spectrum licensees and must therefore be accommodated somewhere on the band. 

But the auction legislation specifically recites that it does not change the status of Low Power Television stations,which presumably continues their secondary status. That gives the Commission a lot more flexibility in dealing with LPTVs because it does not have to take LPTVs into account when it plays chess with full power and Class A channel assignments.  While LPTVs will likely be given an opportunity to find, and file for, some alternate channel, they may need good luck to find one in the anticipated cramped condition of the post-repurposing TV band.

So, from the Commission’s perspective, the chore of repacking existing stations would probably be much easier if Class A stations could be downgraded to LPTV status.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way: the downgrading effort has begun.

Last year, the FCC started checking its own files to see whether Class A stations had been filing their quarterly Children’s TV Reports (FCC Form 398).  Licensees who hadn’t filed their reports received inquiry letters from the Commission in March, 2011. Follow-up inquiries to licensees who didn’t respond to the March letter were sent in August.  Now the FCC has proposed to revoke the Class A status of 16 stations that neither responded to the FCC letters nor filed their Children’s TV Reports. (Here’s a link to one of the 16 “Orders to Show Cause” issued; the other 15 are essentially identical to this one.)  If the threatened downgrades are implemented, the stations won’t be shut down, but will be downgraded to LPTV status. That may or may not end up as a one-way ticket to the gallows in light of the fact, noted above, that a downgrade to LPTV status could ultimately cause the LPTV to become a station without a channel as a result of the spectrum repurposing effort.

At least some Class A stations who received the Commission’s inquiries did respond and did bring their Children’s TV Reports up to date. As far as we know, involuntary downgrades have not as yet been proposed in any of those situations, but the 16 stations singled out so far may just be the beginning of a larger band-clearing initiative by the Commission.

Experienced FCC licensees know that it is never a good idea to ignore an inquiry from the agency.  And of course, failure to file required reports is inviting trouble.  Class A stations should be careful to do their paperwork within 10 days after the end of each quarter: 

  1. File a Children’s TV Report on Form 398 on the FCC’s website, with a paper copy in the station’s public file. 
  2. Place a list of significant community issues and responsive programs in the public file.
  3. Place in the public file records sufficient to demonstrate compliance with limits on commercial matter in children’s programs.  

Class A stations must also place in their public file sufficient documentation to demonstrate compliance with the requirement that they broadcast 18 hours a day (including at least three hours of locally produced programming per week), although there is no specific requirement to renew this documentation every calendar quarter.

Class A licensees derive important regulatory benefits from their status – the additional measure of protection accorded them in the spectrum auction law may be the most important such benefit. It is only a matter of common sense that routine steps – including regular filing of required reports – should be taken diligently to protect those benefits.

Update: Revised Forms Head To OMB

The mills of bureaucracy grind slowly, but they do eventually grind. 

Last October we reported on changes to the broadcast license renewal application form (Form 303-S) that were in the works. Those changes appear to have passed the first bureaucratic hurdle: having invited public comments (which were due by December 13) and then having waited a decent interval (that would be about two days), the Commission has passed its proposed changes along to the Office of Management and Budget for OMB’s review. Notice of that development has now been published in the Federal Register. This gives everybody yet another opportunity to toss in any comments they might have about the revised form – but this time those comments should be directed to OMB. If you’ve got anything to say to OMB, you’ve got until January 26, 2011 to say it. Once that deadline has come and gone, look for the revised form to be officially released by the Commission, just in time for the next round of renewal applications which are due by June 1.

And along the same lines, the Commission’s efforts to plug a loophole have advanced to OMB. You may recall our post from last November, addressing the question of whether or not digital LPTV, Class A TV and TV translator stations were expected to file Form 317 in December. (Form 317 is the annual “Digital Ancillary/Supplementary Services” report in which digital TV stations tell the Commission whether they’ve aired any subscription-like services on any of their digital streams.) While there were ample indications that the Commission might have intended LPTV, Class A and translator licensees to file – and while some such licensees may already have been filing the reports out of excess of caution – the Commission hadn’t bothered to amend Form 317 to include such stations within its reach. And without a properly revised form, LPTV’s, Class A’s and translators were off the hook.

The Commission figured that out last Fall and started to amend its form, but it was too late to do any good before the December 1 deadline for this year. But next year is a different story. The revised form has now been shipped over to OMB for its once-over. Interested parties have until January 26, 2011 to submit comments to OMB. Given the 11-month headstart, we fully expect that the revised Form 317 will be awaiting all LPTV, Class A and translator licensees come the next deadline in December, 2011.

Do Class A, LPTV And TV Translator Stations Have To File Form 317 This Year?

Answer: Apparently not, but enjoy it while it lasts, because next year will likely be a different story.

As all full-power DTV licensees and permittees presumably know, the FCC requires that they file a “Digital Ancillary/Supplementary Services” report on Form 317 on or before December 1, a deadline which is fast approaching. But does that requirement apply as well to digital Class A television, LPTV, and TV translator licensees? 

The short answer is apparently not, thanks (it seems) to our old friend, the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).

Form 317 is used to report whether, during the 12-month period ending the preceding September 30,  a DTV station has provided any ancillary or supplementary services for a fee and, if so, how much revenue the station received. If there were any such services, the licensee/permittee must fork over five percent of the gross revenues it received. (Ancillary or supplementary services are defined to include any services that are provided using the portion of a facility’s spectrum that is not needed for its required one free broadcast signal. Multiple video streams that are received free by the public are not considered to be ancillary or supplementary services.) Originally the requirement applied only to full-power stations.

So far, so good.

But then the Commission got to considering what should happen if and when Class A television, LPTV, and TV translator stations were to begin the big move to digital. Way back in 2001, the Commission decided that it would allow digital Class A TV stations to offer ancillary/supplementary services, and that it would apply to them the same reporting and revenue payment requirements in place for full-power stations. Then in 2004, the Commission decided that, along with other rule changes, it would also apply the Form 317 requirements to digital LPTV and TV translator licensees. Both in 2001 and then again in 2004, the Commission indicated that it would change the instructions to FCC Form 317 to reflect the new groups required to file. It also revised its rules to refer specifically to the fact that Class A’s would be required to file.

But a job is never really done until the paperwork’s been completed, and it appears that the Commission came up a little shy in that department. 

First, the Commission didn’t bother actually to revise the form. As a result, even today the instructions still call for only digital television licensees and permittees to file, with no mention at all of Class A, LPTV or TV translators. Mind you, the instructions have been changed in the interim to specify permittees in addition to licensees as required filers. That change was made to conform with a 2008 expansion of the universe of filers (originally, only licensees, but not permittees, were required to file). But the low power services remained forgotten. 

Second, and perhaps as a result of the first issue, the Commission never bothered to ask the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its approval to impose the Form 317 reporting requirement on the low power universe – a step which is required by the PRA, as the FCC has acknowledged both generally (here) and with explicit respect to the inclusion of Class A’s, etc., in the Form 317 club.

Oops. 

(OMB records indicate that, between 2004 and today, the FCC twice sought OMB approval of Form 317 revisions, but in neither of those submissions did the FCC even allude to, much less specifically address, Class A, LPTV or TV translators.)

Whether the FCC’s past failure to follow up on this was a matter of design or inadvertence, the Commission appears finally ready to take the official plunge. In October, the Commission published a notice in the Federal Register (a) advising of its plan to revise Form 317 to require Class A TV, LPTV, and TV translator stations to file, and (b) requesting comments on that plan. After any responsive comments have been filed, the FCC will ship the revised form off to OMB for its review. But since the initial deadline for comments to the Commission isn’t until December 20, OMB isn’t likely to see the proposed revision until late December/early January, at which point OMB will invite another round of comments.

These circumstances appear to make it impossible for Class A TV, LPTV, and TV translator stations to be required to meet the December 1 Form 317 filing deadline. 

Even if Form 317 is not filed, a Class A or LPTV station has to pay 5% of ancillary services revenues to the government. Some have filed Form 317 to establish on the record that they do not in fact owe any fees. But for those who prefer to minimize paper work (even electronic paper), the FCC cannot take any enforcement action this year against those who do not file.

Be ready for next year, though!

The Big Chill: LPTV Plunged Into Deep Freeze

FCC announces immediate freeze on applications for new/major change digital LPTV/TV translator permits

With no warning – as is almost invariably the case when it comes to freezes – the FCC has terminated acceptance of any applications for new low power TV or TV translator stations or major changes in existing stations in all areas, rural and non-rural alike. The freeze is effective immediately with the release of its October 28 Public Notice.

The imposition of this freeze marks an ominous reversal. After an earlier freeze of several years, the FCC began accepting LPTV/translator applications in rural areas only in August, 2009, with the further promise of an opportunity to file for non-rural areas within a matter of months.  Initially, that later opportunity was to open up in January, 2010, but it never materialized. The January date first got pushed back to July, and then was postponed indefinitely

The reason? The need to evaluate “reallocation and repacking” proposals and their impact on future licensing of low power television facilities. That, of course, refers to the Commission’s stated goal of re-purposing some 120 megahertz of TV spectrum for use as part of the National Broadband Plan.

The supposed dearth of broadband spectrum has been thought to be concentrated in urban areas – which would suggest that the Commission should have no problem leaving open the filing window for rural stations. But FCC staff have also suggested that wireless companies will not be satisfied unless they have a swath of clean spectrum that is available nationwide.  The fact that this latest freeze slams the window shut on rural applications, too – a fact which will paralyze the growth of rural translators to relay new full power digital program streams as well as new locally-oriented LPTV stations in small communities – suggests that the FCC is indeed working to keep the possibility of such a clean, nationwide swath in play.

There are a couple of narrow exceptions to the freeze: Applications for displacement relief will continue to be accepted from stations above Channel 51 or those who are truly forced off their channels; ditto for flash-cut and digital companion applications by existing LPTV stations.

Processing of previously filed applications is not mentioned in the FCC’s notice, so presumably  those applications will continue to move through the pipeline. Applicants already on file would do well to keep their fingers crossed.

White Space Wite-Out®

It’s okay; we all make mistakes.

The FCC’s recent order on white space devices, which we reported on here, and followed up on here, had a few glitches. The FCC has now released a longer-than-usual erratum clearing them up.

A Closer Look At Some White Spaces Fine Print

Protection of TV STAs overlooked; Potential protection of LPTV, TV translator, cable, etc. OTA-receive sites expanded

Poring over the fine print of the FCC’s “white spaces” decision we wrote about last week, we have found two issues that merit the attention of TV broadcasters.

White spaces devices, of course, will operate on vacant TV channels and will have to protect TV broadcast stations. Each device will consult a database to determine which TV channels can be safely used at the device’s location. Devices may have to change channels as necessary from time to time to afford the required protection.

Since the selection of vacant channels will be a dynamic process, the FCC wants to make sure that only channels actually in use by TV stations are marked as off-limits. So, for example, channels occupied by unbuilt TV construction permits would be available for white spaces devices, since, being unbuilt (and, thus, inoperative), the TV CPs would not be subject to any actual interference. With that in mind, the new rules provide that the white spaces database need recognize only granted or pending license applications for both full and low power TV stations.

Whoops.  What about Special Temporary Authorizations (STAs)?

STAs are not a rarity. They are routinely issued to, say, stations that suddenly lose their transmitter sites or that suffer equipment damage during a storm. LPTV stations may well need STAs during the process of transitioning from analog to digital operation – a transition that the FCC is proposing to make mandatory. An STA allows the station to continue to operate – possibly from an alternate site or with facilities other than those specified in its license (or license application) – until it can either (a) return to its authorized site/facilities or (b) obtain permanent authority for its modified site/facilities.

The Commission’s failure to include STAs in the white spaces database appears to be a serious slip. Operation pursuant to an STA is Commission-authorized broadcast operation which should be protected from white spaces devices to the same degree as “licensed” operation.  This error seems to us to merit a petition for reconsideration by the TV industry.

The other issue involves TV translators, LPTV stations, cable systems and other multichannel video programming distributors (let’s call them, collectively, “retransmitters”). As might be expected, retransmitters  retransmit other stations’ signals, signals which are generally received by the retransmitter over-the-air. If a white spaces device cranks up near the point at which the retransmitter ordinarily picks up the signal, the retransmitter’s ability to effectively operate is threatened.

The Commission recognizes this problem. In the 2008 version of the white spaces rules, the Commission permitted some (but not all) retransmitters to register their over-the-air receive sites in the white spaces database – but only if those sites were (a) within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the originating station’s service contour but (b) outside that station’s protected contour. Now, however, at the suggestion of a number of parties the Commission has expanded the area in which receive sites may be registered. That expansion, though, is not gotcha free. 

Under the newly-announced revisions to the rules, all (not just some) retransmitters with over-the-air receive sites more than 80 kilometers from the edge of the received station’s protected service contour may submit waiver requests seeking to have those receive sites registered. The Commission will then issue a public notice soliciting comments on such waiver requests. After reviewing everything that comes in, the Commission will decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to include each such site in the database.

Existing operators who may wish to take advantage of this potential registration opportunity should be particularly alert. Starting with the effective date of the new rules, such operators will have 90 days in which to submit their waiver requests. (Retransmitters who commence operations in the future will have 90 days from the date on which they start up.) The Commission has not provided a time frame during which its resolution of such requests can be expected.

The effective date of the new rules has not yet been announced, and won’t occur (at the earliest) until 30 days after the new rules have been published in the Federal Register. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the Commission will invite new registrations (or registration waiver requests) until a number of practical questions relating to the white spaces database have been resolved. For example, who will manage the database, how will registrations and the like be submitted, how will the database be implemented? Obviously, there is still much to be done before white spaces devices are likely be unleashed on us all.

Evolve Or Die: Turn-of-the-Century LPTV/TV Translators Applications Must Go Digital

Amendments to specify digital operation - and maybe more - due by May 24, 2010

Charles DarwinLast week we observed that the Spring Cleaning bug had hit the Audio Division. The same was true of the Video Division as well – but with a twist or two. (This report on the Video Division’s efforts has been delayed as we tried to unravel things.) Here’s what we know for sure: the Video Division has identified approximately 750 LPTV/TV translator applications, all but a small handful with file numbers showing that they were filed back in 2000 and all proposing analog facilities. The Media Bureau has issued a public notice listing all those applications and advising that they must be amended by May 24, 2010, “to specify digital operations”. Applications which have not been so amended by that date “will not be processed”, a delicate turn of phrase which we take to mean that those unamended apps will be summarily dismissed.

The applications were originally filed in response to a “filing window” in 2000. The Commission expected that the applications would ultimately be subject to auction, so applicants were required to file only minimal technical information: FCC Form 175 (the FCC’s pre-auction form) and an abbreviated version of Form 301-CA (for Class A stations) or Form 346 (for LPTV/TV translator stations). The goal was to get just enough technical information to enable the FCC to determine which applications were mutually exclusive and, thus, would be heading to auction. No filing fees were required. 

But now the Commission is looking for much more: the amendments mandated by the latest public notice must include a complete Form 301-CA or 346 and will be considered “major changes”. They must be complete, and a $705 filing fee must be coughed up for each amendment (no fees were collected in 2000).

The twists?

The FCC’s rules specify that a “major” amendment results in assignment of a new file number. The rules also say that applications are filed on a first-come, first-served basis, with each filing taking priority over any conflicting application filed on a later date. Back in 2000, applications filed during in the window were all treated as if they were filed on the last day for prioritization purposes – so it didn’t make any difference whether you filed on the first day of the window or the last. But if each amendment is assigned a new file number on the day it is submitted, the implication is that the first applicant to amend in 2010 would prevail over any later amenders, even if the later amenders were timely back in 2000 and, thus, presumably entitled to compete in an auction. If that’s really how the Commission plans to proceed, it could set off a race to be the first to amend. 

That approach – which is not specifically laid out in the Division’s public notice – seemed a bit unusual, upsetting the expectations of those who filed in 2000 –  so we dug into the question a bit more and finally got a clarification. Yes, each application may be assigned a new file number on the day it is amended. But the file number will not necessarily be determinative of any priority because mutual exclusivity among the applications on the list will again be evaluated as of the last day of the amendment period (i.e., May 24), at least if they don’t create any new mutual exclusivities that did not exist before. In other words, all amendments filed by May 24 date will be prioritized as if they had been filed on that day. So it may be safe to wait until May 24 after all – but since the FCC has not formally announced that this is, in fact, how it will proceed, do you really want to roll those dice?

Another consideration to bear in mind is that although the public notice says that the listed applications must be amended “to specify digital operations,” it appears that that’s not the only kind of amendment that can be filed. Because the mandated amendments will be treated as seeking “major changes” – as the public notice says – just about any aspect of the application is fair game for changes: channel, transmitter site, and city of license. In effect, each amendment will be treated as an application for a new station and can include anything that could be included in a completely new application.  

And at least some such amendments must be contemplated here, because the rules have changed a boatload in the ten years or so since most of the applications were filed. For example, the Commission has stopped issuing new TV authorizations above Channel 51 – but a number of the listed applications specify operation on now-forbidden channels. They must be amended to a lower channel or be consigned to the trash heap. Ditto for folks who had filed for communities within 75 miles of large markets – a zone from which new station applications are excluded. Some applicants, apparently unaware that the same exclusion zones existed in 2000, specified operations inside the zones. The FCC never examined the technical acceptability of any of the applications. Had it done so, those within the exclusion zones would have been dismissed. If they do not amend to move out of those zones now, they will be toast.

So the story is that if you have an application on the list, you have until May 24 to amend to specify digital operation, clean up and complete the full application form, comply with all current interference requirements, and contribute a non-refundable $705 to the U.S. Treasury –  or your application will be out of luck. If you are not on the list, you can still file an application for a new station, since applications outside the 75-mile exclusion zones may be filed at any time under current rules; but any applicants for new stations must protect all applications on the list unless and until the old applications are actually dismissed. Old applicants do not have to protect their own old proposals, so they have more flexibility in what they can put in their amendments.

The Division’s effort to clear out its closets of a bunch of applications that can’t be processed in their current state is understandable. All the listed applications specify analog service, which is so Last Century. The FCC has in effect initiated a partial mandatory transition to digital operation for LPTV stations by deciding that even though existing stations still have no digital deadline, no more construction permits will ever be granted for new analog stations. Moreover, LPTV applications haven’t been real money-makers for the Commission auction-wise – in past LPTV/TV Translator auctions, applicants have demonstrated a reluctance to go beyond the minimum bid, if they showed up to bid at all. So the pending applications do not represent a potential treasure trove in unrealized auction revenue for the FCC.

Faced with these circumstances, the Commission opted to require applicants to re-engineer, amend, and pay a hefty filing fee. The result may well be that many drop out, thinning the herd and increasing the chances for settlements among those who remain in the game.

But if the Division is hoping to get rid of some, possibly most, of these applications, why not just toss them – like the Audio Division did in similar circumstances? One distinction between radio and TV: the Video Division does not face the kind of struggle the Audio Division faces between FM translators and low power FM stations, which are different classes of station with different rules with competing interests. On the video side, LPTV and TV translators are treated as essentially the same service for engineering purposes, with stations having the freedom to switch their category at will. Therefore, it is not necessary to put the brakes on one class of station to preserve spectrum opportunities for the other.

Some of the LPTV applicants have already dismissed their applications, and many are likely not to amend. When the dust settles after May 24, few enough applicants may remain to allow orderly processing, settlements, and grants in rural areas where there is a demand for more network repeaters and local programming services.