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Recent actions by the FCC and Congress may spur a speedier conversion to digital television service.

The Communications Act now requires that all broadcast stations convert to digital, and the spectrum presently occupied by NTSC TV channels 52 to 69 be returned to the FCC to be auctioned for use by other services. The deadline set by Congress for the completion of this conversion process is Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of the households in a television market are capable of receiving digital television service.

The Media Bureau's DTV Task Force proposed that the 85 percent penetration level be met by counting the delivery of digital service by cable and satellite services. The focus would not be on the actual coverage of digital OTA service, but on whether there is a digital signal in viewers' households, regardless of the delivery mechanism. Viewers would be considered in the 85 percent if they convert the incoming digital signal with a set-top box and retain their analog receivers.

Television broadcasters said that this plan would eliminate the incentive for consumers to purchase new digital sets. Moreover, because consumers would lose digital-quality signals when they were downconverted for delivery to analog television sets, programmers would lack the incentive to create new digital programming. This conversion to digital could eliminate OTA service to the 15 percent of the population that does not have cable or satellite service, or a new digital television.

Congress is looking at different ways to encourage the conversion to digital, most recently in the context of the reauthorization of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act. A draft of the legislation contains a proposal to permit satellite service providers to bring distant network signals into local markets to fill in where local broadcasters are not providing quality DTV service. The idea is that, because many digital television stations are operating at reduced power, the threat of the carriage of distant signals would give broadcasters incentive to build out their full digital facilities.

Broadcasters are blamed for the slow conversion to DTV. But, the commission has not resolved the issue of digital must-carry. And the FCC has yet to set final DTV tuner/receiver standards or settle critical copying issues.

2004 regulatory fees

The commission has released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the assessment and collection of regulatory fees for fiscal year 2004. While the fees for some classes of licenses will actually be lower if the proposed 2004 fees are adopted, it should surprise no one that the majority of broadcast regulatory fees are proposed to go up for 2004. The proposed fees, which would be due for payment in September, are set out in the table.

The winners under the proposed fees are commercial UHF TV permittees. Regulatory fees for UHF permits will plummet by more than 30 percent (from $8300 in 2003 to $5675 in 2004). The losers will be commercial UHF licensees in markets 11 to 25, who are looking at an increase of more than 25 percent (from $12,875 in 2003 to $16,175) in 2004.

Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.

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August 1: Television stations in North Carolina and South Carolina must file their renewal applications, ownership reports and EEO program reports. Stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands must begin their prefiling renewal announcements.

Proposed FY2004 television station regulatory fees VHF TV $ Markets 1 to 10 60,350 Markets 11 to 25 41,450 Markets 26 to 50 29,150 Markets 51 to 100 17,550 Remaining markets 4050 Construction permits 4650 UHF TV $ Markets 1 to 10 17,775 Markets 11 to 25 16,175 Markets 26 to 50 9300 Markets 51 to 100 5550 Remaining markets 1650 Construction permits 5675 Satellite television stations $ All markets 1050 Construction permits 515 Proposed FY2004 regulatory fees for miscellaneous broadcast-related authorizations Low-power TV, TV/FM translators/boosters 385 Broadcast auxiliary 10 Earth stations 200