NTIA opens the door for LPTV/Class A/Translator/Booster grant applications

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has finally issued a “Notice of Availability of Funds” (Notice) and on July 13, 2009, will start accepting applications for grants for upgrading Class A, Low Power TV (LPTV), TV Translator and TV Booster transmitters to digital operation. All you Federal Register gurus can find the Notice here.

While NTIA originally planned to dole the cash out after a formal rulemaking proceeding, that plan has gone by the boards. Instead, NTIA has simply declared that it has cash up for grabs. The Notice is NTIA’s way of saying “come and get it.”

We’ve all heard the relentless FCC-mandated propaganda about how your “analog television will be kaput!” on July 12, 2009. Of course, that’s not entirely true. The analog shut-down deadline does not apply to Class A, LPTV, and TV Translator stations (we’ll call them the “LPTV folks”), which outnumber full power stations by a considerable margin. And no deadline to convert the LPTV universe to digital operation has yet been announced.

Still, quite a few LPTV folks think that their future lies in converting to digital. But – and this is an important but – there is that pesky problem of how to pay for it. Thanks to a $44 million Congressional appropriation (Section 3009 of Public Law 109-171, for you legislative wonks), NTIA is finally stepping up to the plate with a grant program to help the LPTV folks convert. Whether the amount of money available will do the job is another question, but some grant is surely better than no grant. So let’s grit our teeth and plunge head-first into the process NTIA has set up for tapping into the stream of federal dollars.

There are two federal grant programs for the LPTV folks. One, already in progress, is limited to helping pay for converters that pick up digital signals over-the-air and convert them to analog for retransmission. These grants won’t help construct digital facilities, so we can ignore them here. Anyway, that particular grant program will close down on June 12, 2009.

The second program will help the LPTV folks buy digital transmitters. It opens up in July. But don’t count on a huge federal feeding trough. Only rural stations will be eligible for grants, which will come in two classes: one with a $6,000 per-station cap and the other with a $20,000 cap. Actual grants may be less if too many stations apply and the money runs short. Priority will be given to nonprofit entities. A point system will rank all applicants.

To get in the door, you have to meet two basic qualifications. You have to demonstrate that: (a) you held a construction permit or license for an analog station on February 8, 2006; and (b) you transmitted an analog signal on or after that date. Pending applications don’t count, and if you were transmitting a digital signal on that date, you are disqualified. (It’s not clear whether transmitting a digital signal on a companion channel while transmitting analog on the main channel knocks you out of the box.)

Next you have to demonstrate that your station is located in a “rural community” not contained in an incorporated city or town with a population of more than 20,000 persons. This might ordinarily be a deal-killer for many, but NTIA has saved the day by disregarding the size of a station’s community of license and relying instead on the population within the station’s protected analog signal contour (51 dBu for UHF channels). The contour is determined using the sophisticated Longley-Rice method, which supposedly reflects actual service with considerable accuracy. NTIA believes that the “vast majority” of LPTV folks will pass this test, at least if they do not serve a substantial part of an “urbanized area” as designated by the Census Bureau.

And to help applicants determine their population numbers, NTIA has created maps for about 90% of the LPTV folks. When you fill out the on-line application at the NTIA website, the system will supposedly generate a map for you with a population count, and will indicate whether or not you’re eligible. (Tip: Watch out for large yellow areas on the NTIA map, because those are the dreaded urban areas that can disqualify you.)  If you don’t like NTIA’s mapping results, you may submit your own calculations and map.

If you’re still eligible after the map maze, it’s time to calculate your point score. Each station can get up to a total of 30 points, doled out as follows:

  • Nonprofit entities get ten points. (Governmental licensees do not qualify as nonprofits.)
  • Stations serving a population within the FCC 50/50 Longley-Rice coverage contour of fewer than 10,000 people who are not within an urban area will receive ten points.
  • As to the remaining ten points, those depend on the applicant’s “rurality” score. “Rurality”? Yup, “rurality”, a concept which NTIA will implement as follows: “A station whose FCC 50/50 Longley-Rice coverage contour serves an area that does not include an urban area with population greater than 20,000 people will receive ten points. A station whose coverage contours include urban areas with a population greater than 20,000 can receive between six and nine points. Stations receiving fewer than six points are not located in an eligible rural community and thus not eligible to participate in the Upgrade Program.”

Remember that each station is scored separately. The number of stations a particular licensee owns does not help or hurt.

Those fortunate enough to get points for being nonprofit or serving fewer than 10,000 persons get to apply first. Their deadline is July 13, 2009, at 5 p.m. sharp (Eastern time). Your application must be in NTIA’s hands by then, not just dropped in a mailbox. NTIA encourages online filing and warns against using the U.S. mail, because of delivery delays caused by their security screening procedures. 

For everyone else, the deadline for the second round is September 1, 2009.  [Blogmeister note: the preceding sentence has been corrected from the version as originally posted – see Update.]  After NTIA takes care of the first two rounds of filers, they will take additional groups, one month at a time, until the money runs out. (Obviously, filing after the initial deadline that applies to you is a good way to risk losing out.)

A good point score is not a guarantee that you’ll get a grant. NTIA says that it will make grants based on point score, recommendations of its program staff, and geographic distributions. NTIA does not explain the details of non-point factors or whether any subjective judgments will be involved.

Because of the potential problems with paper filing, online electronic filing is definitely the preferred way to go. Once you get the application form figured out online, you make your filing at www.grants.gov. This involves a couple of additional elements.

First, you can’t file any application online at www.grants.gov unless you have pre-registered and have an ID number. Registration takes about five days – so if you’re going to file, don’t put off pre-registering.

Second, you will need to submit a bunch of other federal forms which are required generally for Department of Commerce grants. NTIA has supposedly simplified those other forms, reducing most of them to mere certifications of compliance. Of course, whether or not you really can legitimately and correctly make such certifications is another story entirely.

[NTIA has provided a list of all the necessary components of a complete application. Click here to get to the Notice, and then go to Section III – Application Procedures, Section A – Content and Form of Application Submission (found at the 11th page of the 15-page Notice PDF).]

OK, you have managed to file your application, you are still in one piece, and your “rurality” score is six points or more. So far, so good – but you’re not out of the woods yet.

You can get a grant only for money you have actually spent. You have to pay it out to your equipment vendor first. NTIA will not give you a voucher, letter of credit, or anything else you can use to place an order. If you don’t have a receipt stamped “paid,” you don’t get any NTIA money. Moreover, you must have spent the money on digital transmission facilities after February 8, 2006. If you spent it earlier, you’re out of luck.

You get back the amount you spent, up to a cap. There is no standard fixed grant amount, but there are two grant caps. If you are modifying your analog transmitter, your cap is $6,000 per station. If you are replacing your analog transmitter, the cap is $20,000. Why so little? The caps are based on an assumed 100-watt analog transmitter and 25-watt digital operation. NTIA apparently focused on small rural translators. You can, of course, modify or buy a larger transmitter; but you have to pay the difference if the cap does not cover your costs.

Reimbursable costs are limited to equipment related to the transmitting plant. Studio and production equipment upgrade costs are not eligible for reimbursement. NTIA’s website will have a list of what equipment costs may be claimed.

If you do get a grant, there are more federal forms to fill out, but we will let that challenge wait for another day.

NTIA says that its staff will help stations through the application process. So will we at Fletcher Heald & Hildreth, P.L.C., if you would like us to pilot your ship through the shoals. Just let us know.