Broadcasters Gain Some Build-out Flexibility

They didn’t get quite everything they asked for, but heavy lobbying by broadcasters seems to have helped the FCC forge a set of rules for the final digital build-out that removes some uncertainty, while providing needed flexibility.

For the hundreds of stations with final digital facilities not completely built, the order provides some firm deadlines.

Those stations already on their final digital channels with construction have just a few months—till May 18—to complete construction. Those remaining on their current channels but who have no construction permits have until Aug. 18. Those moving to new channels or onto their analog channels will have until the analog end-date of Feb. 17, 2009.

February 2009 is also the final build-out deadline for those stations facing a “unique technical challenge”—for example, the 49 stations that need to reposition a side-mounted antenna. The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and NAB noted that Congress never said broadcasters had to be at their final, full-power DTV mode at the February 2009 deadline, and they argued for broader discretion, including a one-year ramp-up period.

The commission said the deadlines allow broadcasters the flexibility they need while minimizing service disruptions and ensuring that consumers who have invested in digital TVs get the signals they were promised. The commission said in some circumstances it would allow stations six additional months—till Aug. 18, 2009—to ramp up to full power.

Broadcasters had also argued that they should be given broader discretion to end analog broadcasts ahead of the February 2009 deadline in order to facilitate their final digital buildouts. The order claims to take a middle path, allowing analog shutdown as early as Nov. 19, 2008, if the station notifies its viewers and the commission, and earlier if certain conditions are met.

The order also allows stations moving their DTV channel to allow coverage expansions of up to five miles to provide flexibility. It also set a 0.5 percent standard for new interference in post-transition facilities, as broadcasters had sought.

The commission also ordered stations to adopt the latest version of the ATSC PSIP standard, which provides for more programming-related data. The order gives broadcasters 120 days (after publication of the order in the Federal Register) to comply.

The package seems to reflect a major push by MSTV and others to make commission staff understand broadcasters’ positions. MSTV representatives brought slide presentations to commission staff in November and made about half a dozen visits or phone calls to staff just before the holidays. The order was adopted Dec. 22 (a Saturday) and released Dec. 31, suggesting that some at the FCC spent Christmas week finalizing the document.

Broadcasters were generally pleased with the results.

“The FCC went a long way towards accommodating many of the serious concerns facing local broadcasters as we move to complete our historic shift to digital television,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the commission to ensure a seamless and successful DTV transition.”

NAB also had no problem with the order that broadcasters file progress reports Feb. 18 and Aug. 18. “Broadcasters have been preparing for this transition for many years, and we will do our dead level best to make this historic technological shift as seamless for consumers as possible,” Wharton said.