The FCC has announced that effective immediately, it will no longer accept applications for construction permits for new digital companion channels filed by analog Low Power Television stations. While this article refers to only LPTV stations, TV translators are subject to all the same rules and to the new freeze.
This freeze removes the only loophole that remained in previously announced LPTV freezes and prevents any LPTV station from filing to change channels or for an additional channel until after the FCC completes repacking of the TV spectrum after the incentive auction concludes. The auction is winding down to close in its final phase, and may end as early as next week.
There are three situations where an LPTV applicant may seek to occupy a new channel:
1. An application may be filed to build a new station. Such applications may be filed only during “window” dates announced by the FCC from time to time. No such window has been opened for LPTV since 2010, and there is virtually no chance that a new window will be opened until after the repacking of full power and Class A television stations has been completed and displaced existing LPTV stations have had an opportunity to apply for substitute channels.
2. An authorized LPTV station may file an application to change channels. If the station is seeking to change channels because it is causing or receiving interference on its existing channel and needs to vacate that channel to resolve the problem, that kind of channel change application has been frozen since 2014, except in the rare situation where new interference is created as the result of a facility change by a full power station and is so severe that the FCC concludes that immediate relief is required. If an existing station wants to change channels without an interference problem that was beyond its control, that application is treated the same as one for a new application and is covered by the 2010 freeze.
3. An authorized LPTV station that is still operating in the analog mode may file an application for a second channel (a “digital companion”), which it will operate digitally and simultaneously with its analog station until it shuts down its analog operation permanently. The FCC has accepted digital companion applications up until now, but no more. These applications have been stopped by the new freeze.
The one kind of LPTV change application that is still acceptable is an application by an authorized analog LPTV station to convert to digital operation in place of its analog operation and without changing channels. Those applications, known as “flash cut,” may still be filed. Applications may also still be filed by existing stations for minor changes in their service area, as long as there is no change in channel. A “minor” change is a site move of no more than 30 miles, where the existing and proposed service areas overlap.
Pending applications for new digital companion stations that were filed before January 19, 2017, will continue to be processed and granted if they are found to comply with applicable requirements. Granted, but unbuilt, construction permits for new digital companion channels and displacement channel changes are not being cancelled and remain valid, although they will not be protected during the repack and so may become useless unless the holders are able to modify them when the anticipated LPTV displacement application window is opened.
As it has with prior freezes in all the broadcast services, the FCC takes the position that a freeze is only a “procedural,” not a substantive action, so no prior notice or opportunity for comment is required. Of course, making the announcement without warning serves the purpose of avoiding a rush of applications that would likely have been filed if a warning had been given ahead of the effective date of the freeze.
We don’t know for sure yet how long it will be before displaced LPTV stations are invited to apply to change channels; but until the FCC announces that opportunity, the ultimate effect of the new freeze is that all existing LPTV stations will be frozen on their existing channels until after the full power/Class A repack has been finalized.