FCC Invites Comments on Request for Greater Flexibility for TV DTS Transmitters

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has invited comments on a petition filed jointly by America’s Public Television Stations (“APTS”) and the National Association of Broadcasters (“NAB”), requesting a relaxation of restrictions on where digital television stations may locate Distributed Transmission System (“DTS”) antennas.

Digital television technology allows a station to broadcast from multiple transmitters on the same channel without each transmitter causing interference with the others.  It is the same concept as cellular telephone systems.  To keep the signal strength strong and even throughout the service area, phone systems have lots of transmitter sites, or “cells.”  If you have only one central transmitter site, the way most TV stations now operate, the signal will become weaker the further away you get, and terrain obstacles will also result in pockets of poor service.  Multiple transmitter sites can alleviate this poor service problem.

DTS has not taken off under the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (“ATSC”) 1.0 digital TV standard, because of concerns about its actual effectiveness and whether any benefits exceed the costs.  But DTS is easier to implement with ATSC 3.0 than with ATSC 1.0, and DTS improves the ability to reach mobile receivers; so TV broadcasters are now taking a greater interest in the technology.

The FCC’s existing rule requires that the signal from a DTS transmitter be completely confined within the noise-limited service area of the primary transmitter.  The idea is to prevent stations from using DTS to extend their service areas and become regional rather than local service providers.  The downside, however, is that if you want to put up a DTS transmitter to fill in a weak pocket near the edge of your service area, its effectiveness may be impaired if you have to point a directional signal back into the center of the primary transmitter’s service area to avoid any leakage outside the permitted area.  In other words, the more you push DTS transmitters back inside the main station service area, the less good they will do.

Another problem with the FCC’s “keep it local” theory is that TV stations can establish regional service through translators.  Some are already regional powerhouses, particularly in geographically expansive Designated Market Areas (“DMAs”) in the Mountain states.  But the translators occupy additional channels, so they are less frequency efficient than DTS.  Moreover, the day could come when TV stations become all “cellular”; i.e., they no longer have a primary centralized high-powered transmitter.  How will the FCC define the permissible DTS service area then? Based on a hypothetical high-powered transmitter that does not exist?

The basic idea behind the APTS-NAB petition is to redefine the permitted coverage area to allow more flexibility in locating DTS transmitters.  The noise-limited-service contour (41 dBu for UHF stations), is supposed to be the place where the signal drops out because of “noise,” or interference, from other signals.  The petition asks to redefine the DTS signal limit to be the primary transmitter’s 36 dBu contour.  That would allow DTS transmitter signals to extend out beyond the main transmitter’s service area at least a little and thus do a better job of filling in gaps in the station’s fringe signal both inside and outside the noise-limited contour.  The value 36 dBu was chosen because it will supposedly not result in new interference to other full-power stations and will also not interfere within the protected contour of Low Power TV (“LPTV”) stations (51 dBu on UHF channels).

We will let the engineers speak to the interference protection claims, although the FCC should take into account the fact that LPTV stations are freely permitted to accept incoming interference, so there may be some stations that will suffer an unexpected increase if the APTS-NAB proposal is adopted.  On the other hand, there is merit in more flexibility, and some would say that the purpose of the FCC’s rules should be focused on encouraging better overall service of the public, not preventing any slight expansion of a station’s service area that might make it less “local.”

The prospects for LPTV stations could also be improved if the FCC encouraged full power stations constructing DTS systems to relinquish digital replacement translators (DRTs and DTRT’s) that were intended to fill in service area gaps that no longer exist after implementation of DTS.  Relinquished translator channels could provide homes for LPTV stations that were displaced in the recent repacking of the TV band and were forced to move to channels with less signal coverage.

Comments on the APTS-NAB petition are due by November 12, 2019, with Replies due November 27.   If you have any questions regarding the preparation and filing of Comments and Replies, please contact your counsel.




COME AND GET IT! 130 FM Channels for Sale by the FCC (But You’ll Have to Pony Up a High Bid to Get One)

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has announced that on April 28, 2020, it will offer for sale at auction 130 FM channels that are currently vacant.  These are channels formerly occupied by stations that lost or cancelled their licenses, channels sold to bidders who failed to pay their bids, channels that were offered but drew no bidders, and channels that have never been opened up to applications.

You can read the FCC’s Public Notice here and view the construction permits in Auction 106 here. They are spread throughout the country, but mostly in smaller communities.  The largest market is Sacramento, CA, where applications will be accepted for the channel formerly occupied by KDND – a station that relinquished its license as part of a settlement of an FCC investigation.

By statute, if more than one entity applies for a given channel, the FCC must award the license by competitive bidding, i.e., in an auction.  The first step will be a time window for filing “short form” applications on FCC Form 175.  A short form includes an expression of interest, detailed ownership information, and some basic technical parameters.  If only one short form is filed for a channel, the filer will be invited to file a full “long-form” with all of the usual legal and engineering details of its proposal, along with the filing fee for an application for a new station.  If more than one short form is filed, the FCC will hold an auction; and only the high bidder will file a long-form.

The FCC has invited comments on proposed up front deposits from prospective bidders (which are refunded to losing bidders) minimum opening bids, and how the auction should be conducted in terms of things like activity requirements and when the auction should end.  Proposed opening bids range from $100,000 for Sacramento to only $750 for Essex, CA, Yakutat, AK, San Isidro, TX, and Wamsutter, WY.   Comments are due November 6, 2019, with Reply Comments due November 20.  If past is prologue, there will be multiple bidding rounds, the FCC will step up the pace by having more rounds per day as the auction proceeds, and when bidding activity falls below a certain level, the FCC will end the auction; but if enough people file comments saying that the system should be changed, you never know what the FCC might decide to try.  It is unlikely that the FCC will change its policy that entities that make bids and then withdraw them, or that place a winning bid and fail to pay on time, should expect to be fined significant amounts.  If you play, you have to play for keeps.

A critical aspect of FCC auctions is the anti-collusion rule.  Once short forms are filed, no one who filed an application is permitted to talk to any other filer about anything relating to the auction in any community, not just the communities for which the two parties filed applications.  You can’t go to dinner, meet at a bar, post on Facebook, launch a blimp, or figure out some other way to let another applicant know your auction plans.

Assuming the FCC applies their existing anti-collusion rules unchanged, those rules will also affect the ability of the attorneys at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth to communicate with more than one applicant for a given community regarding their bid or bidding strategies at any time after the short-form filing deadline.  Any individual attorney will likely be further limited to representing a single auction participant, regardless of the channels for which that participant is bidding.  Throughout the auction, we remain able to provide general regulatory and legal advice unrelated to the auction.  We encourage any clients who are considering filing to participate in the auction to let us know at the earliest possible date.  We will also be happy to answer any questions about auction procedures and to assist clients in preparing comments on how to make the auction effective, efficient, and reasonably accessible to entities of all sizes.

FCC Announces Extension of Filing Deadline for LPTV/TV Translator Reimbursement

As we wrote about in August on CommLawBlog, Low Power TV (LPTV), TV Translator Stations, and FM stations intending to request reimbursement for expenses incurred as a result of the repack of full-power and Class A television stations were required to file their Initial Reimbursement Form (Form 2100, Schedule 399) by October 15, 2019. Now the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has announced in a Public Notice that the deadline to file the reimbursement forms for LPTV and TV Translator stations is pushed back from October 15 to November 14, 2019 (11:59 PM).

Please note: this only applies to LPTV/TV Translators filing reimbursement forms, not FM stations. The 11:59 PM, October 15, 2019 deadline is still in place for FM broadcast stations.

Additional details on eligibility requirements and what to include on the initial Schedule 399 are available in our August blog post.  Continue to check CommLawBlog for any announcements or changes and contact your counsel should any specific questions arise.

New Developments in Broadband – October

Capitol Hill

As the year’s legislative calendar winds down, a large new infrastructure spending program with dedicated funding for broadband appears dead.  Attention now is on smaller but important pieces of bi-partisan broadband legislation such as the Secure and Trusted Communications Act, introduced in the House of Representatives on September 24.  The bill would prohibit the use of federal funds to purchase communications equipment or services that pose a national security risk, and appropriates $1 billion for the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or the “Commission”) to establish a $1 billion “Secure and Trusted Communications Reimbursement Program” to assist small communications providers in removing and replacing compromised equipment (so-called “rip and replace”).  Broadband mapping also continues to be a focus with a number of bills circulating in both the House and Senate. Continue Reading

Upcoming FCC Broadcast and Telecom Deadlines for October – December

Broadcast Deadlines:

October 1, 2019

License Renewal Applications Due – Applications for renewal of license for radio stations located in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands must be filed in the Commission’s Licensing and Management System (LMS).  These applications must be accompanied by Schedule 396, the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Program Report, also filed in LMS, regardless of the number of full-time employees. Continue Reading

Political Broadcasting Rules Q & A: Updated for 2019

With primaries in some states happening as soon as March, and the Democratic primary contest already hotly contested by a large field of candidates, the 2020 election cycle is certain to be one of the most contentious and hard-fought in recent memory – as well as one of the longest. While far more limited in scope, 2019 elections in some states, and many localities, are also rapidly approaching.  For all stations, now is the time for broadcasters to review their systems to ensure that they will comply with the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) political advertising requirements. Now that all broadcast stations are required to place political files online, it is increasingly important for all radio and television stations to ensure compliance with the political broadcasting rules – not just the substantive rules but the recordkeeping portions as well. A little advanced planning can go a long way in making this (seemingly perpetual) election season run smoothly (and, ideally, profitably) for your station. Continue Reading

Comment Deadlines Announced for Proposed LPFM Rule Changes

On August 8, we discussed changes proposed in the technical rules for Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, in an article titled “REC ‘N’ Roll in the FM Band:  LPFM Changes Proposed, NCE-FM Changes Requested.

The LPFM Proposals have now been published in the Federal Register, and comment deadlines have been announced.  Initial Comments are due October 3, 2019, with Reply Comments due November 4, 2019.

If you have any questions regarding the preparation and filing of Comments and Replies, please contact your counsel.

FCC Announces Extension of the Biennial Broadcast Ownership Report Filing Deadline

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has announced in an order published on September 17. 2019 that it will delay the filing deadline to January 31, 2020, for broadcast ownership reports (two months later than the original deadline). This applies to licensees of commercial and noncommercial AM, FM, TV, Class A, and Low Power Television (LPTV) stations, as well as entities with attributable interests in such stations. The purpose of shifting the filing window is to allow the FCC time to make the appropriate improvements to the Form 323/323-E report as it relates to the electronic filing system.  The Order also delays the opening of the window to file biennial ownership reports from October 1, 2019 to November 1, 2019.

Filers take note, the new FCC Order does not shift the required “as-of” date of the information reported on Form 323/323-E biennial ownership reports. The information reported on this form must still reflect ownership interests existing on October 1, 2019.

This order will provide filers with additional time to prepare their forms, as has been the case for past years’ filing of biennial ownership reports. If any questions arise, remember to contact your counsel.

New Developments in Broadband – September

Capitol Hill

House Democrats’ “Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act” (LIFT America Act) –containing $40 billion dedicated for broadband, largely through reverse auctions – remains pending.  While prospects for significant federal spending on a new broadband program remain in limbo, Congress has allocated further funding to the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) ReConnect funding for 2020 (item below).  Bi-partisan interest in broadband generally remains strong.  On Thursday, September 5, Senator John Thune (R-SD) (chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet) held a field hearing on rural broadband at the Southeast Technical Institute, in Sioux Falls, SD.  The witness list and testimonies are available here. Continue Reading

Now Available: Political Broadcasting 2019: A Refresher Course Webinar

With Federal, state, and local elections on the horizon (to say nothing of FCC license renewals), it’s a good time to brush up on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. This webinar, presented in collaboration with the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and led by Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth attorneys Dan Kirkpatrick and Frank Montero, and featuring special guest star Bobby Baker, the FCC Media Bureau’s Political Broadcasting Guru, touches on a variety of important subjects including, lowest unit rate, equal time, issue ads, and online public file record-keeping (more detail on the online public file here).

If you couldn’t watch the webinar live or just can’t get enough of it, you can download and print the presentation’s PowerPoint slides here and can also watch the full webinar on the Fletcher Heald YouTube page. And if you have any questions about political broadcasting, reach out to us at fhhwebinar@fhhlaw.com.