Among other transition-related details, Commission proposes 2012 termination for analog LPTV service, even earlier clearing of LPTV from 700 MHz band channels

The FCC says it’s time to close the lid on the analog TV coffin for good. In a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Memorandum Opinion and Order (NPRM), the Commission has started the ball rolling for the final shut down of all remaining analog Class A, LPTV and TV Translator stations (for convenience, we’ll simply refer to them all as “LPTV”). 

Full-power TV licensees were required to abandon analog and embrace digital no later than June 12, 2009. While the Commission has, since 2004, permitted LPTV stations to convert to digital, it has not made the conversion mandatory. But now that the full-power conversion deadline has come and gone, the Commission believes that LPTV operators should also be herded into the digital corral. So the Commission is seeking comment on a number of proposals for accomplishing that goal. 

The proposals include a hard – and fast-arriving – deadline for all LPTV stations to convert to digital operation. Another proposal would impose an equally hard – but faster-arriving – deadline for all LPTV stations (whether analog or digital) to clear out of Channels 52-69.  (Channels 52-60 comprise the 700 MHz band which was cleared of full-power TV stations and allocated to commercial and public safety wireless services years ago. LPTV stations have been permitted to stay on in that band on a non-interference basis – until now.)

The NPRM is light on the specifics of the final mandatory conversion process. As envisioned by the Commission, the Media Bureau would be responsible for devising and implementing the nitty-gritty details. But the Commission has laid out a number of questions for comment.

Digital Conversion Deadline – 2012. However the digital transition for LPTV stations may shake out, the FCC currently thinks that it should be wrapped up sometime in 2012 (i.e., “approximately three years after the June 12, 2009 full-power transition date”). 

A 2012 deadline for finishing the process? The FCC understands that this deadline may be a problem. But it figures that most, but not all, full-power stations made the transition in only about four-five years, and many LPTV stations have already availed themselves of the opportunity to convert to digital. With knowledge gleaned from that transition experience, the Commission speculates that three years might be enough finish up with LPTV. 

Of course, that three-year period would start as of the full-power transition date, June 12, 2009 – meaning that more than one-third of the time has already passed. Telling LPTV stations in September, 2010, that their digital transition countdown started 15 months ago is a bit of a stretch. On top of that, there are some 7,500 LPTV stations compared to only about 1,800 full-power stations. The logistics alone (e.g., equipment manufacture, installation, tower rigging) for all these stations are not likely to permit completion by a deadline barely two years away.

Further complicating matters is the National Broadband Plan (NBP).  Among its various ambitions, the NBP would repack the TV spectrum to free up 120 MHz of TV spectrum for broadband. That would reduce the spectrum available for all over-the-air TV considerably – so much so that many LPTV stations may not be able to find suitable new homes. The idea of spending a lot of money to convert to digital, only to have to change channels again or even be shut down a year or two later by broadband, is unsettling, if not terrifying. 

The FCC is not oblivious to these problems, but it may be a bit unrealistic about possible solutions. For example, the NPRM mentions an NTIA grant program to help pay for the cost of digital transmitters. But it fails to mention that: NTIA is limited by statute to funding rural stations; grant maximums are $6,000 and $20,000, far below the cost of a digital transmitter; and grants are made only after the grantee has shelled out its own cash to buy the equipment. (The NPRM does solicit comments detailing the anticipated practical considerations – including particularly conversion costs – that LPTV stations are likely to face.)

The Commission also wants to know what kind of community outreach efforts it should plan for the LPTV transition. How many of the bells and whistles imposed ad nauseam during the full-power transition (e.g., audience-education efforts, call-in centers, re-scanning instructions) should be dusted off and re-deployed?

And the FCC invites comments on whether the deadline should be later, perhaps 2015, and whether exceptions should be made in hardship cases or communities where LPTV is the only available over-the-air TV service.

However much LPTV stations may be quaking in their boots at this point, the fact remains that more than half have already applied to the FCC for some kind of digital conversion, and the current pace of digital applications is pretty brisk. The real question is how many stations still feel that there is any audience for their analog signals and, as a result, want to postpone conversion to continue to serve that analog audience. Some suggest that minority and niche audiences and rural residents often served by LPTV stations still have a lot of analog receivers, but statistics are not plentiful.

700 MHz Band Clear-Out Deadline – December 31, 2011. Turning to Channels 52-69, the FCC says that enough is enough. Whether or not those channels are being put to use by their non-broadcast licensees, it’s time to clear out the broadcast hold-overs – all of whom happen to be LPTVs. Now that the full-power transition has come and gone and full-power stations are no longer taking up two channels each, channels in “the core” (i.e., below 52) are as easy to come by as they are going be. 

Accordingly, the FCC proposes to require all LPTV stations on Channels 52-69 to apply to move to lower channels by June 30, 2011, and to move there by December 31, 2011. 

There may be some practical problems with that ambitious schedule. Can the FCC process all these applications in six months? How fast can the FCC resolve conflicts if two stations apply for the same channel? The answer, we suspect, is that those who wait until the last day to file applications will pay the price: earlier filers will have more time to work out kinks in their FCC applications and get grants, leaving them time to build; and since applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, conflicts should arise only if two stations file on the same day. 

Additionally, the NPB repacking plan could gum up the works here as well. The scope of the repacking proposal might be clear before June 30, 2011, but then again it might not – in which case the process of picking a lower channel, and then obtaining authority to use it, may turn out to be risky business.

The Freeze Is On. Effective immediately, no more applications will be accepted for new analog LPTV stations on any channel. Existing stations on Channel 52-69 may no longer request analog modifications except in extreme hardship cases (think involuntary loss of transmitter site), and no new digital companion applications will be accepted on Channels 52-69, even if no lower channel is available.

“Minor” Change?   The FCC proposes to limit transmitter site changes in “minor” change applications to 30 miles. Currently, a proposed change is “minor” if there is any overlap between the old and new service contours. By proposing a smidgen of overlap, some stations have succeeded in moving long distances into new markets, including urban markets. As proposed in the NPRM, moves of more than 30 miles would be deemed “major” changes, which are currently forbidden in urban areas. (The FCC says it plans to remove geographic restrictions on first come, first-served applications for new stations and major changes – although it doesn’t say when.)

VHF To The Rescue? With the likelihood of NBP-induced spectrum scarcity in mind, eyes are turning to VHF channels, which aren’t suitable for broadband (and not ideal for digital television, either). The FCC nevertheless asks whether VHF channels may become a good home for digital LPTV stations, and it offers the carrot of a power increase above the present 300-watt limit. VHF LPTV stations, particularly those on Channels 7-13, have been clamoring for more power for several years, and the door may now be open to meet that need. In fact, the FCC invites comments on whether power increases and/or changes in interference standards are needed for all digital LPTV stations.

Channel Surrender.  Analog LPTV stations with companion digital channels have, as a matter of policy, been permitted to terminate analog operation and either keep their companion digital or move their digital operation to their analog channel. The FCC proposes to make that policy permanent. In the past, Class A stations have not enjoyed the same degree of choice, because their companion channel was not afforded Class A spectrum priority. Now the FCC proposes to give Class A stations the same ability to choose to operate digitally on their analog channel or their companion channel, and whichever channel they select will be granted Class A status. This change will be of significant benefit to Class A stations whose analog channels are not suitable for digital operation and who thus have little choice but to stick with their companion channel and need a way to retain Class A status.

Vertical Radiation Patterns/Emission Masks. LPTV antennas do not always have the same horizontal and vertical radiation patterns, but FCC interference studies are based on only the horizontal plane and assumed vertical characteristics which may not accurately depict actual operation. The FCC now proposes to require vertical pattern information in applications for new or modified stations. Existing stations not making changes may either: (a) file their vertical pattern or (b) continue to rely on the old assumptions. 

The FCC also proposes to allow the use of a full-power TV digital emission mask by LPTV stations, in addition to the previously authorized simple and stringent masks. Because the full power mask exceeds the performance of a stringent mask, it will allow more digital LPTV stations to avoid predicted interference to first-adjacent channel stations, opening a door for some applications that were previously stymied.

Ancillary/Supplementary Services Fee. Digital stations – LPTV and full-power – are permitted to provide the same subscription-based, non-broadcast ancillary services on their spare digital capacity as their full-power colleagues. Since 2004, digital LPTV licensees have, just like full-powered licensees, had to pay the same annual fee of 5% of the gross revenue derived from such services.  But in 2007, the Commission expanded that fee obligation on the full-power side to include any authorized DTV stations, not just “licensees” (in other words, stations operating pursuant to an STA would be subject to the fee as well). The Commission now proposes to close the loop by extending that tweak to LPTVs as well. 

And finally, the NPRM notes that a petition asking that LPTV licenses be made secondary to “White Spaces” unlicensed broadband use of vacant TV channels was denied in the separate White Spaces rule making.

Comments will be due 60 days after the Notice of Proposed Rule Making appears in the Federal Register, with replies 30 days later. We will post the deadline when available. Of course, by the time the comment cycle has been completed, and a decision is reached, there will probably be less than one year left in the FCC’s theoretical three-year transition period if the proposed 2012 deadline sticks.