Second Report and Order sets stage for the final countdown to final digital transition for LPTV/Class A TV/TV Translators

Apparently, when the Commission decides to crank out a groundbreaking item concerning some aspect of the DTV transition, the time to do it is Friday – late Friday. (Who can forget consecutive Friday the 13ths in February and March, 2009, for example?) So it shouldn’t have surprised anybody when, around dinner time on July 15, the FCC released its long-awaited Second Report and Order (2d R&O) announcing a final end of the Class A TV, Low Power Television and TV Translators (we’ll call all three “LPTV” in this post) digital transition. Mark your calendars – the analog LPTV curtain is now set to fall on September 1, 2015, unless the LPTV operation (analog or digital) is on Channels 52-69, in which case the operation must shut down on December 31, 2011, regardless of whether the licensee has been able to find an available lower channel. But if you have a companion channel or flash cut CP, you now have until September 1, 2015 to build.

Here’s a summary of the primary aspects of the new rules governing the end of analog LPTV:

Analog Curtain Lowers. LPTV licensees have been in digital limbo for years, allowed to convert to digital voluntarily but not knowing for sure when they would be forced to join the DTV ranks. Getting the allotment of full power DTV channels squared away was one factor that had to be resolved first – but that occurred two years ago. In the meantime, though, the Commission has embraced the notion of “repacking” the spectrum to squeeze out more space for broadband use by removing up to 20 broadcast TV channels. The anticipated “repacking” process is almost certain to affect a sizable number of full power DTV allotments, which would in turn affect the spectrum available for digital LPTV.

Recognizing that it would be rather harsh to impose a digital transition deadline on LPTV stations before the effects of the anticipated “repacking” program can be known, the FCC figures that a four-year transition period, ending on September 1, 2015, should provide adequate time for all concerned. (The FCC does not agree with commenters who urged that marketplace forces should be allowed to dictate the pace of the transition.)

The FCC has encouraged NTIA to ask Congress to extend the existing program for reimbursing LPTV digital transition costs. Some $30 million remain in unspent funds in that program. The FCC does not discuss either: (a) the program’s statutorily-mandated eligibility criteria, which strongly favor the most rural stations and completely exclude urban stations; or (b) the program’s dollar limits of $6,000 and $20,000, neither of which fully covers conversion costs.

No More New Analog Licenses. The 2d R&O affirms the FCC’s earlier decision to dismiss all pending applications for new analog LPTV stations that were not amended by May 24, 2010, to specify digital operation. No surprises there.

Relief for the Nervous. Digital equipment is expensive, money doesn’t grow on trees, and banks are not known for their generosity.  To ease these burdens, the FCC has automatically extended all currently outstanding digital CPs for flash cuts (i.e., on-channel conversion to digital) or digital companion channels for existing analog stations. No matter when those permits were issued or how many extensions were previously requested, all these permits have now been extended to September 1, 2015. 

Construction permits for new stations have not been automatically extended. All such existing permits and future permits will expire three years after issuance. Moreover, if someone holds permits for analog and digital companion channels, both unbuilt, the earlier expiration date on the analog permit will remain the expiration date for both permits. However, the permittee need not build out the analog station to save the digital permit. Construction of just the digital facility will be sufficient; once the digital facility has been built and licensed, the associated analog permit will be canceled.

Any digital permitee who can’t get its digital facilities built by September 1, 2015, will have one last opportunity to apply for an extension (based on factors such as Acts of God, unforeseeable circumstances, circumstances beyond the permittee’s control, and financial hardship). All such extensions must be requested no later than May 1, 2015; any extensions granted will expire March 1, 2016. Anyone needing more time than that will have to request “tolling” of their construction period under Section 73.3598.

Out of Core, Out of Luck. Stations (analog or digital) operating on “out-of core” Channels 52-69 will not enjoy the benefit of either the 2015 deadline or the extension process. They must stop operating by December 31, 2011 – no exceptions – and must file an application for an “in-core” channel (Channels 2-51) by September 1, 2011Channel change applications filed after that date will be dismissed. 

Waivers of the filing deadline may be requested; but in no event will continued operation above Channel 51 be permitted after the end of 2011. The FCC believes that clearing LPTV operations from the out-of-core channels will facilitate the prompt deployment of 4G LTE services in the 700 MHz band. As has been the case for some time, wireless 700 MHz band licensees ready to operate can still force LPTV stations to vacate out-of-core at any time on 120 days notice, even before December 31, 2011.

The Commission means business when it comes to clearing the out-of-core channels: stations still awaiting approval of new in-core channels at the end of this year must go dark and risk permanent loss of their license if they remain dark for more than one continuous year. Stations facing that draconian fate may escape the noose by requesting Special Temporary Authority to operate on an in-core channel pending grant of a permanent grant.

Let the World Know You Are Moving. Veterans of the 2009 full power DTV transition will recall the extensive consumer education campaigns mandated by the Commission to alert viewers to the practical consequences of the transition. The FCC contemplates a similar campaign as LPTV stations complete the transition, but details have been left for later.  While the FCC may eventually adopt most (if not all) of its 2009 approach, for now the only requirement is that licensees broadcast announcements 30 days before terminating analog operation if they have program origination capability. (Stations lacking such capability must find another way (e.g., newspaper notices) to publicize their transition.) Broadcast announcements must be aired at the time of each station’s peak viewing, but frequency and content are left to individual station discretion. Stations already transmitting digital signals (having already shut down their analog service) do not have to make any announcements.

Minor Change Definition Tightened. LPTV stations applying for displacement to a new channel are restricted to a 30-mile change in transmitter site. Other changes may exceed that distance and still be classified as “minor” as long as there is any overlap of licensed and proposed protected service contours. The FCC will now impose the 30-mile limit on all minor changes in addition to the contour overlap requirement: any application not meeting both standards will be deemed a “major” rather than a “minor” change. That distinction is crucial here, since there’s a freeze on major change applications (as well as new applications) currently in effect – so absent a waiver of the freeze, a major change application will be returned by the FCC.

More Juice in the Lowlands. The FCC’s spectrum repacking proposal may include moving LPTV stations to available VHF channels. VHF has not been favored by full power TV stations who feel it’s inhospitable for digital service generally and mobile services in particular.   Not surprisingly, LPTV stations – most of which are not on cable or satellite – see any move to herd them onto the VHF band as another way to crush them, although some have talked about possible use of VHF for alternative modulation schemes. The 300-watt LPTV VHF power limit has also proved vexing for LPTV stations, compared to the 15 kW UHF power limit. 

To enhance the attractiveness of VHF, the FCC has increased the LPTV power limit by 10 times, to 3,000 watts, on all VHF channels. (The Commission did not address proposals to allow more power to high-band VHF Channels 7-13, but the universal 3 kW limit should still be attractive to many stations. It also declined to increase the 15 kW UHF power limit since most LPTV stations can already cover their communities of license amply at that power level.)

More Masking Choices. All TV stations wear “emission masks” which curtail unintended signal radiation outside of their assigned channels. Historically, LPTV stations have had only a choice of a “simple” or a “stringent” mask, both of which are more relaxed and less expensive than the mask used by full service stations. The FCC will continue to allow simple or stringent masks but will now also allow LPTV stations to use a full service mask on a voluntary basis. A full service mask will allow more LPTV stations to find available channels or to improve their facilities, as it will reduce instances of interference to first-adjacent channel stations.

Antenna Pattern Flexibility. LPTV stations currently file information about their directional antenna patterns in the horizontal plane, but the vertical pattern is assumed under Section 74.793(d). Reliance on assumed values keeps some stations from complying with interference requirements. To counter that, the new rules permit stations use their actual vertical pattern in interference calculations. Application forms will be revised to accommodate individual station pattern values. Submission of actual vertical pattern data will be voluntary; stations not submitting actual data will continue to be evaluated based on an assumed pattern. (Interesting unresolved strategy question: The FCC does not say whether a station that would benefit from the actual pattern of another station can file the pattern for the other station if the other station does not submit its own pattern.)

Class A Stations Get To Choose their Channel. An LPTV station with both an analog and a companion digital channel is already permitted to choose either channel as its permanent digital home when analog service is terminated. If they want to stay on their digital companion channel, they only have to file an electronic notice that the analog station has gone dark with an exhibit electing the digital channel. If they want to move their digital operation to their analog channel, they must file a flash-cut construction permit application and then shut down the companion channel when the application for a license to cover digital operation on their analog channel is filed.

Class A stations have not previously enjoyed this flexibility: only their analog channel had primary spectrum (i.e., Class A) status, while their companion digital channel was deemed to have the same secondary status as LPTV stations. Class A stations with both analog and digital operations will now be free to elect either of their channels for permanent digital operation. They can apply for a construction permit to flash-cut their analog channel or may migrate their primary status to their digital channel without a CP by simply filing a Form 302-CA license application for the digital channel. That application must include a certification that the digital channel complies with all Class A interference requirements.

Pay the Piper. Both full power and LPTV licensed stations that provide non-broadcast ancillary services (such as digital data) in addition to video program streams are required to file Form 317 in December of each year and pay 5% of their gross ancillary services revenues to the government. Digital LPTV stations operating under an STA without a license have been exempt, but no longer. All digital LPTV stations must now file Form 317 each December. If they have no ancillary services, they may so state and pay nothing. (While some licensed stations without any ancillary services have not filed Form 317, the form is so easy to complete that it seems more prudent to file than to risk an FCC inquiry as to why no report was submitted.)

Enough is Enough. Interested observers will note that the 2d R&O leaves unresolved a number of proposals, including: refusing to accept supposedly unrealistic antenna patterns that may not be achievable in practice; authority to lease part of a TV channel to wireless service providers; classification of analog Channel 6 operation as an ancillary service, to permit it to continue after 2015; relief from the freeze on applications for new stations and major changes; relaxation of eligibility requirements for Class A status; and authorization for alternative forms of signal modulation other than the current ATSC digital standard.

When Does the Race Start? The new rules will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. (Check back here for updates on that front.) Some aspects of the new rules (the FCC doesn’t say which) involve “information collections” requiring prior approval by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Getting that approval could add a couple of months to the effective date. We hope to learn next week whether applications proposing full service emission masks and Class A channel elections may be filed immediately or must await the effective date of the new rules.