Community Broadcasters Association closes doors; some LPTV stations look to cellular alternative

In more fallout from the DTV transition, the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) has closed its doors after 25 years of representing low-power TV stations in the United States. Many LPTV stations have gone out of business in recent weeks, and the remaining ones are eyeing new technologies in search of a viable future business model.

LPTV, according to those who understand the business, has gone through a perfect storm of adversity in recent months. A faltering economy coupled with the indifference of Congress and the FCC in the recent digital transition left many stations in a destitute position. Many could no longer pay dues to the CBA, which contributed to the organization’s demise.

The FCC’s refusal to grant LPTV the same must-carry rights as full-power stations has led to many small stations being denied access to thousands of cable viewers. Also, the commission’s refusal to grant second channels to the low-power stations so they could transition to digital along with higher-power stations added to their woes.

Finally, the CBA tangled with the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), which managed the federal government’s DTV converter box program. The CBA wanted converter boxes to include analog pass-through capability so viewers could continue to receive LPTV and Class A TV analog signals after the transition. In the end, retailers were allowed to sell digital converter boxes without the capability to watch the low-power stations.

Today, for LPTV stations to go digital, they have to hire expensive engineering services to locate an available new digital channel in their area and then apply for the transition through the FCC. But for many small broadcasters, it’s too steep a price to pay.

The CBA, defeated and overwhelmed by this confluence of adverse events, decided to close its doors, though the group’s Web site and toll-free number remain active. Amy Brown, executive director of the CBA when it closed, has shifted her focus to a new technology she hopes will save the LPTV industry.

Brown is now director of industry relations for Cellular Terrestrial Broadcasting (CTB), a group of LPTV stations that have pledged to dedicate a portion of their spectrum to terrestrial broadcast services. With 118 member LPTV member stations so far, they plan to use cellular technology for such services as multichannel video distribution, datacasting and high-speed broadband delivery.

CTB is charging no membership fees for stations. Members must sign a letter of intent to provide a portion of their spectrum for new services. The CTB plans to help their members finance the necessary technical modifications for the new services.

In adopting the cellular technology, stations will still use ATSC technology; however, the cellular technology allows the reuse of bandwidth in a cell, magnifying its coverage. From this, they hope to find a new business model for LPTV.

However, like so many disillusioned media industries today, the CTB is no longer looking for government help and is trying to look within to reinvent its business based on available new technical solutions. With nearly 3000 LPTV and Class A TV stations in the United States, much is at stake.

Dedicating a portion of a station’s spectrum to mobile use means very little in the rapidly changing larger media environment. Mobile handset providers currently have minimal revenue streams from QUALCOMM’s MediaFLO and MobiTV, both cable-like program aggregators and delivery systems. Even these services are fighting to remain viable as TV programming transitions to the Internet.

With mobile television broadcast to phones still an unproven business, there’s little incentive for providers to place receivers in their handsets for broadcasters; however, that could change, and other uses of the LPTV technology could emerge.

Greg Herman, the CBA’s former VP of technology, said LPTV stations are looking to the future to find technical solutions that are compelling and intelligent.