Fast-tracked replacement DTV translator service targets anticipated service area gaps

As we reported last December, on Christmas Eve Eve (that would be December 23) the FCC proposed the creation of a new “replacement digital television translator” service. The idea was to provide full service TV licensees with access to translators to enable them to fill in gaps between their soon-to-be-history analog service areas and the DTV services areas which they will be left with once the transition occurs.

Proving conclusively that the Commission can move quickly when it wants to, the FCC has released its Report and Order (R&O) wrapping up that proceeding by – you guessed it – creating the new replacement DTV translator service.

Of course, the fast-approaching June 12 transition date provides considerable motivation for the Commission here. The government as a whole – that would be the Commission and Congress and the NTIA – has consistently demonstrated an overriding (and, in the view of at least some observers, overblown and unrealistic) concern that the DTV transition not cause any U.S. TV viewer to lose access to over-the-air service. Since the DTV service area of many stations will fall short of their current analog service areas, the Commission needed to come up with a quick fix. And voilà – replacement DTV translators!

Needless to say, other options were available: for example, requiring use of DTS technology, or requiring DTV stations to maximize their facilities to eliminate any signal shortfall. While those options remain available, the Commission concluded that they would likely be more burdensome to TV licensees looking to fill in the gaps as quickly as possible.

So the doors are open and the welcome mat is out at the Commission for replacement DTV translator applications. Actually, the welcome mat has been out since last January, when the FCC announced that, to get things moving along, it would permit the filing of applications for new replacement DTV translators even before the service had been created! (According to the Commission, 20 such applications have already been filed.)

Some highlights of the R&O:

  • Replacement DTV translator applications will have priority over other LPTV/translator applications other than displacement applications (with which they will share co-equal status). The R&O indicates that “applications filed for full-service television and Class A television stations” will have priority over replacement DTV translator applications. BUT the Commission has provided no clear explanation of what it means by “applications for Class A television stations”, and the rule itself does not refer to Class A stations separately from LPTV stations.
  • Replacement DTV translators will be restricted to Channels 2-51. No fair stepping on the public safety entities and auction bidders who become the primary users of Channel 52-69 on June 12, 2009.
  • Applicants for replacement DTV translators will have to demonstrate that (a) a portion of their analog service area will not be served by their full post-transition DTV facilities and (b) the translator will be used to serve that loss area. Full-service stations will not be permitted to use these translators to expand their service areas, although some de minimis expansion may be permitted if it can be shown that such expansion is necessary to replace the loss area. (The term ”de minimis” will be defined on a case-by-case basis.)
  • The replacement DTV translator will be associated with, and have the same Facility ID as, the full-service station’s license, and will not be separately assigned or transferred. Thus joined at the hip, a DTV translator may not originate any independent programming or do anything other than repeat the signal of its parent station at all times.  These translators will still be “secondary” spectrum users and will be subject to many existing technical rules governing plain old translators.
  • New replacement DTV translator construction permits will specify a three-year construction period. That seems a bit odd, given the FCC’s incredible hurry-hurry approach here. After three years, will any viewers still be waiting for restoration of their “lost” analog service, or will they all have given up the ship and signed up for cable or satellite? But according to the Commission – which had originally proposed a mere six-month construction period – practical considerations like ordering, obtaining and installing equipment and getting local land-use clearances make a six-month time limit unrealistic.

Despite the Commission’s effort to get this new service in place tout de suite, it’s not clear exactly when the new rules will actually take effect. According to the R&O, the new rules and procedures will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register – except for any rules and procedures which require OMB approval. For those latter items, the Commission will issue a further notice once OMB approval has been received.

Check back to for updates about the effective date(s) of the new rules.