Last week the FCC released the Report and Order on its Second Periodic Review of the DTV transition. The Report and Order (R&O) is 108 pages long and is packed with details on the DTV channel election process, the resolution of conflicts between stations, build-out requirements and deadlines, as well as specifying requirements for PSIP, closed captions and station identification. After reading through the document three times, I've identified some of the most critical information.
Most stations will want to know what they have to do by what deadline. Here are the main deadlines and some details on the channel election process. Please read the Report and Order for the rest of the details, as they could affect your station's requirements and filings.
October 2004: The FCC will issue a "Table of Station Assignment and Information" to determine and evaluate the DTV service populations that will be used to process channel elections and create the new DTV Table of Allotments. This Table of Station Information will use licensed facilities or those authorized by CP as of October 1, 2004. The FCC will update the Table to reflect service areas based on stations' certifications to build either replication or maximized facilities after receiving pre-election certifications. The FCC will use the 2000 census date to determine coverage and interference. For stations that have maximized and/or changed locations and channels, service areas and population will be based on the authorized facilities, less interference from other stations.
November 2004: Stations file pre-election certifications, including certifying the information in the FCC database is correct. Stations also have to certify their commitment to either fully replicate or maximize. If a station doesn't file a form, the FCC will "provide for the station to serve the same geographic area served by its existing DTV facilities, operating as of the certification date."
December 2004: Round One. All stations with at least one in-core channel must chose their final DTV channels. Note that in my earlier report, I interpreted the FCC News Release on the Report and Order as saying the first election would only be for stations with two in-core channels. That isn't the case, although a station with only one in-core channel, or with only one channel (in-core singletons with no assigned DTV channel) must elect whether it will keep its in-core channel, or return the in-core channel and be treated like a licensee with two out-of-core channels. Stations with two in-core channels (including stations with two low-VHF channels) will have to choose one of these channels as their final DTV channel or release both channels and participate in the second round of elections. Stations can also negotiate channel elections, including channel swaps with other stations, but must submit "technical engineering information demonstrating compliance with Section 73.623(g)." Section 73.623(g) sets the rules for negotiated agreements on interference.
December 31, 2004: All commercial DTV stations must meet FCC DTV principal community signal coverage requirements. These require a signal level 7 dB greater than the noise-limited signal level (i.e., 48 dBµV/m community coverage signal level for a 41 dBµV/m UHF noise-limited signal level).
January 2005 (120 days after publication of the Report and Order in the Federal Register): Broadcasters must fully implement PSIP to the extent that ATSC A/65B requires. The FCC expects "broadcasters to populate the required tables and descriptors with the proper information to help receivers assemble functioning guides. All tables and descriptors that require one-time setup should be set correctly, including TSID, Short Channel Name, Service Type, Modulation Mode, Source ID and Service Location Descriptor." Broadcasters also have to send populated EITs covering at least a 12-hour period. "These EITs should be populated with the correct information so that the user knows what programs are on for this 12 hour period."
February 2005 (expected): The FCC completes the interference analysis to determine to what extent an in-core NTSC channel elected as a final DTV channel would cause interference to an existing or proposed in-core DTV channel. Once the interference analysis is complete, the FCC "will set tentative channel designations for in-core licensees with channels that have been elected in the first round and "locked in." If interference is predicted, stations will have 60 days after which they receive the conflict notification letter in which to file their "First Round Conflict Decision Forms" showing how they intend to resolve the conflict. Here is an example the FCC gives for this process:
"In the case of a two-in-core licensee whose election of its in-core NTSC channel causes an interference conflict which prevents granting the in-core NTSC channel with the certified coverage, the licensee will file a conflict decision form indicating whether it will accept its in-core NTSC channel with interference and reduced facilities or if it will revert to its DTV channel. The channel selected at this time would be 'locked in' and the other channel would be released. In the case of a licensee with only one in-core NTSC channel (including singletons) that elected its in-core NTSC channel and an interference conflict was found that would prevent granting coverage to extent certified, the licensee will file a conflict decision form indicating whether it wishes to accept its in-core NTSC channel with interference or if it wishes to be treated as a two out-of-core licensee and file an election in the second round (see Step 4). Licensees are cautioned that it is possible that they may obtain a less preferable tentative channel designation than had they decided to keep their in-core NTSC channel election with interference and reduced facilities."
See the Report and Order for the details on this process.
April 1, 2005: Minimum DTV operating hours increases to 100 percent of the amount of time a station airs an analog signal.
April 2005 (expected): First Round Conflict Decision Forms due.
July 1, 2005: This is the use-it-or-lose-it deadline for stations affiliated with the top-four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in the top-100 markets. A station that receives a tentative DTV channel designation on its current DTV facility must construct a full, authorized facility by this date. If the tentative DTV channel is not the one it is currently using, it "must serve at least 100 percent of the viewers served by the 1997 facility on which their replication coverage was based."
July 2005 (expected): Round Two. Stations with two out-of-core channels and those that released their in-core channel in the Round One elections, may submit one channel election preference or may request the FCC determine a "best available" channel for them in this Round Two. Stations participating in this round may also submit one contingent channel preference that would be available for selection "only if the licensee rescinds its original second round election as part of a negotiated conflict resolution or settlement agreement with another licensee."
September 2005 (expected): The FCC completes the second-round interference conflict analysis. As with the first-round election process, the FCC will identify and resolve interference conflicts and "lock in" second-round election preferences as tentative channel designations, "to the extent possible." As a result of this process, the FCC may find that some stations will need to reduce facilities or accept interference to maintain their preferred channel. Stations will have 60 days after they receive a notice of interference conflict to resolve the conflicts. If they do not accept the reduced facilities and/or interference or cannot resolve their interference conflicts, they may participate in the Round Three of the elections.
November 2005 (expected): Second Round Conflict Decision forms due.
December 31, 2005: All non-commercial DTV stations must meet FCC DTV principal community signal coverage requirements.
January 2006 (expected): Round Three. Stations that have not "locked in" tentative channel designations in the previous two rounds will have a final opportunity to make one additional channel election preference that protects all "locked in" channels. As was the case in the second round, the licensee can also ask the FCC to specify a channel for use at full replication facilities. The FCC "will select a channel that minimizes new interference among all affected stations." A station that has a low-VHF channel or a channel subject to international coordination may also seek an alternate tentative channel designation, even if it has another elected and "locked in" channel or ask the FCC to determine the "best available" channel at full replication facilities. No stations with "locked in" channels will be able to participate in this round.
The Commission will determine, on a case-by-case basis, which channel best replicates the station's service area while minimizing interference to other stations and will include considerations of service to the public, including the factors recommended by MSTV:
"(1) Whether the station was an early adopter of DTV technology (i.e., the length of time the station has been operating on DTV);
"(2) the impact on the public's access to DTV services (i.e., the population served by the station's digital signal and the percentage of replication population covered);
"(3) whether one or both of the station's channels is/are in the low VHF band (which might weigh in favor of that station receiving priority);
"(4) whether coordination with or interference to or from Canada or Mexico is a problem;
"(5) the existence of any zoning, environmental or other such issues; and
"(6) any other factors that may be relevant at the time."
July 1, 2006: This is the use-it-or-lose-it deadline for all other DTV stations, commercial and non-commercial. A station that receives a tentative DTV channel designation on its current DTV facility must construct full, authorized facilities by this date. If the tentative DTV channel is not the one it is currently using, the station "must serve at least 80 percent of the viewers served by the 1997 facility on which their replication coverage was based."
August 2006 (expected): The FCC completes the channel election and repacking process and issues a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to propose a New DTV Table of Allotments. All eligible stations will be assigned channels for DTV operations after the transition. The Report and Order says, "In developing the new allotments, we will attempt to accommodate the preferences of broadcasters to the extent possible. Our proposed Table will be based on the tentative channel designations established through our channel election process, as well as on our evaluation of overall spectrum efficiency and providing the best service to the public, including service to local communities. In the NPRM, we will seek comment on our proposed new DTV Table of Allotments."
The Report and Order devotes many pages to this process and contains information that isn't presented in this summary of the timetable, including information on how it will determine protected service areas for stations that don't meet replication or maximization deadlines. Please take time to review the entire Report and Order and discuss any questions with your engineering consultants and attorneys. A bad decision here could have a major impact on the coverage and value of your station when analog broadcasting ends. This is anticipated in 2009.
Here are some other items in the Report and Order that deserve attention. Broadcasters are required to transmit their transport stream identifiers (TSID) on both their analog and digital channels. The Report and Order states: "The correct TSIDs must be used to ensure that receivers link the analog and digital channels properly. Accordingly, broadcasters are required to transmit the TSIDs assigned for their stations in their digital transmission. During the transition period while both analog and digital signals are broadcast, stations are required to transmit the NTSC TSID in line 21, field 2 in order for the receiver to locate the programs referenced in PSIP." The FCC mandated use of PSIP (ATSC A/65B) and said the major channel number must be that of the NTSC channel. See the Report and Order for details on other information required for PSIP.
There are new identification requirements that will affect all stations. Digital TV stations will have to follow the same station identification rules as analog stations. If the channel number is used, it must be the major (analog) channel number, not the actual DTV channel. If the analog programming is simulcast on DTV, identification can be made simultaneously, but the ID has to include both calls signs, (e.g., "WXXX-TV and WXXX-DT") if it is intended to serve as the ID for both stations. The Report and Order says, "If they choose to make simultaneous identifications for more than one channel, stations should ensure that these announcements are adequate to identify both program streams."
If digital programming is captioned, it must contain EIA-708 data. The FCC said the requirement for EIA-708 closed captioning applies to all digital broadcast programming, even that delivered in standard definition. Many encoders will pass on EIA-708 data (same as analog TV) but not all decoders can display it. The Report and Order said, "Therefore, while all captions supplied with new digital programming should conform to the standards for 'native' EIA-708 style captions as detailed in the standard, analog captions must also be provided if a broadcaster wishes to count the programming towards its quarterly captioning requirements."
Finally, the Report and Order said, "Stations on Channel 51 should receive the same level of protection as other stations on in-core channels, including protection from wireless and other new service providers. We will accord the same level of adjacent-channel protection to both incumbent and future analog and digital broadcast facilities on Channel 51." The FCC declined to impose power limitations on DTV stations on Channel 51.
Refer to the Report and Order for full details and consult your FCC attorney or engineering consultant if anything is unclear.