FCC proposes new Replacement translator service for full-service DTV fill-in, opens door for immediate filing

Having canceled its December 18 open meeting and substituted a quick conference call on December 30 to meet the statutory monthly meeting requirement, the FCC now seems to relish putting out significant items just in time to keep everyone working over Christmas. The latest example: the December 23 (that’s right, Christmas Eve Eve) release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to open a special opportunity for full power television stations to apply for what will be known as digital “Replacement” translators to fill in gaps in the coverage of their primary signal. These applications will be accepted even though applications for new translators generally may not be filed absent a general translator application window, which the FCC evidently does not intend to open until any rush of Replacement translator applications dies down.

Because the new “Replacement” service will serve as the spackle patching over holes in signal coverage resulting from the fast-approaching DTV transition, the Commission has put the NPRM on a super-fast track. Comments will be due a mere 10 days after the proposals are published in the Federal Register. And even before the clock for comments starts running, applications will be accepted: the FCC authorized the Media Bureau to start accepting applications as early as Christmas Eve, just as Santa Claus cranks up his reindeer and sleigh. And while the applications may not be granted until the rulemaking is completed, the staff will be able to grant special temporary authority (STA) in the meantime. 

If you want to file an application, do it quickly, because applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis, with the earliest filed application getting priority. If more than one mutually exclusive application is filed on the same day, the FCC will allow a 10-day settlement period. If there is no settlement, the applications will go to auction.

Replacement translators may be requested only by the licensee of a full power station and only to fill in an area covered by the station’s analog signal but not covered by its digital signal (although the FCC asks whether de minimis extensions of the analog service area should be permitted – and if so, how “de minimis” should be defined). The translator license will be firmly riveted to the full power license, so it cannot be sold or assigned apart from the full power station. Presumably a Replacement translator may not convert to a Low Power TV Station or originate separate programming, although the FCC does not explicitly say that in the NPRM.

Applicants must first search for a channel in the range 2-51. If no channel is available, an application may be filed for Channels 52-59, with notice to be given to local public safety entities that will ultimately have access to those channels. Stations are encouraged to consider installing multiple transmitters on their full power channel, under the recently adopted  distributed transmission systems (DTS) rules; buying time on existing Low Power Television (LPTV) stations; and buying time on another full power station’s secondary digital stream. Exhausting these possibilities does not seem to be a firm pre-requisite for filing for a Replacement digital translator, but some commenters will undoubtedly request that Replacement translators be a solution of last resort. The FCC also proposes a short-leash use-it-or-lose it policy, where Replacement translator construction permits are valid for only six months rather than the traditional three years.

Applications for Replacement translators will have priority over all other Class A, LPTV, and TV translator applications except applications for displacement relief where a station is forced off its channel by interference. Replacement translators will have equal priority with displacement applications; so presumably, the first-come, first-served principle would protect earlier filed displacements. However, pending applications for new or modified Class A, LPTV, and TV translator stations, including digital companion channels, could be bumped by a Replacement translator application. It appears that all granted Class A, LPTV, and TV translator applications would be protected, even if the facility is unbuilt.

The FCC proposes that Replacement translators be a secondary service, even when an application is granted – meaning that they could be bumped by a full power station application. The FCC also invites comments on the impact that Replacement translators might have on the availability of “White Space” spectrum in urban areas for unlicensed wireless networks. White Space proponents, some of whom have already suggested that their service should not be secondary, may be sharpening their fangs in preparation for battle.

Whatever your viewpoint may be on translator and White Space issues, it does appear that the Replacement translator train is barreling down the track rather quickly – it would not surprise us to hear that a Report and Order approving the proposed rules has been written already, even before comments are received and reviewed. However, there may be opportunities for commenters to shape some aspects of the rules, even if defeat of the entire proposal is unlikely.

In view of the very short comment period, check back to this site periodically for updates.