08.15.2003 12:00 PM
Ramifications of House bill raise difficult questions for broadcasters

The Consumer Access to Digital Television Enhancement Act of 2003 introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last month aims at hastening consumer adoption of digital television by removing obstacles that have created what amounts to a chicken-and-egg digital TV scenario.

It seeks to change the existing DTV equation that’s resulted in consumers waiting to buy DTV sets until an adequate amount of digital programming is available and broadcasters minimizing DTV operating expenses until there are enough DTV viewers in the market to justify full-power service.

Among the provisions likely to be of particular interest to broadcasters is a section of the bill that orders the FCC to establish minimum DTV power levels and a deadline for hitting those levels. Specifically, it states:

Within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Federal Communications Commission shall revise its regulations to establish minimum power levels and deadlines for achieving such power levels for any television broadcasting facility transmitting a digital broadcast signal. Such regulations, at a minimum, shall require broadcasters to transmit a digital signal at sufficient power to ensure that its digital broadcast service matches the Grade A service contour of its NTSC broadcast signal by no later than July 1, 2004. Nothing in this Act shall limit the Commission's authority to prescribe higher power levels consistent with the objective of concluding the transition to digital television by December 31, 2006.

As it stands, this provision raises at least three thorny issues for broadcasters: expense, timing and compliance. Increased required power levels could raise a station’s total power bill to at least $100,000 or more annually for a fully maximized facility. Additionally, while the capital spending required of broadcasters to meet this provision may ultimately be no greater than their planned outlay for a digital RF plant, the July 1, 2004 deadline may disrupt existing spending timetables and limit technical alternatives for achieving this provision’s goal.

FCC rules already require city grade digital contour coverage for commercial stations by Dec. 31, 2004 and a year later for non-commercial stations. Advancing the deadline would be likely to set off a technical scramble to comply and place a disproportionately larger burden on non-commercial stations to comply because they’d lose 18 months, not just six like commercial stations. (This assumes that public and non-commercial stations wouldn’t be granted an additional year to comply as they have been with other DTV rules. In its current form, the bill makes no provision for such an extension.)

If the bill becomes law, broadcasters will have little choice other than to build larger transmitting facilities with taller towers and higher power. That’s because the July 1, 2004 deadline is likely to leave insufficient time for the FCC to approve distributed DTV transmission and broadcasters to implement it in time to comply with the bill’s requirements.

According to Merrill Weiss, broadcast industry consultant and senior partner of the Merrill Weiss Group LLC, the bill’s language raises additional questions. “While the bill is not specific in defining the equivalence of DTV service with the Grade A NTSC contour, certain assumptions can be made about the meaning of the language in the bill,” he said.

“For instance, the UHF DTV broadcast service is typically defined by the 41dBu noise-level limited contour. Matching that contour to the station’s NTSC Grade A contour would seem to meet the requirements of the bill.

“Whether the bill would force a station to operate at higher power than it would have six months later in order to meet the DTV city grade requirement will depend upon the distance of its transmitter from its city of license.

“If the transmitter is close to the city of license, the bill might require a greater increase in power to match the Grade A contour. If the transmitter is far from the city of license, the Grade A contour might already have been replicated in order to cover the city of license with the city grade signal.”

“Given that the deadline currently specified in the bill certainly will be less than nine months away by the time the bill could possibly be passed and signed into law,” Weiss continued, “there will be many stations operating at low power levels that will not be able to complete the acquisition of equipment and the necessary installations in the time now provided, no matter how motivated they become.”

Co-sponsored by Republican Lee Terry from Nebraska and Democrat Rick Boucher from Virginia, the bill was introduced July 23 and has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

To read the full text of the bill visit: http://thomas.loc.gov and enter H.R. 2825 into the "Bill Number" search field.

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