DTV Final Channel Election Starts in November

The FCC has set deadlines for broadcasters to choose their final DTV channel and maximize coverage or meet minimum coverage requirements. Although we will have to wait for release of the Report and Order for details, the FCC news release FCC Takes Next Steps to Promote Digital TV Transition summarizes the plan, which is similar to the 5 step plan proposed by the Association for Maximum Service Television.

As noted elsewhere in this week's RF Report, the FCC has frozen applications for changes to TV stations (analog and digital, including Class A TV) that propose a change in coverage area or channel. Before October 1, 2004, stations are asked to verify the technical information in the FCC TV engineering database is correct. During October the FCC will issue a "Table of Station Information" that will show DTV service populations for stations based on the stations' on-file database information. In November 2004, stations will have to certify their database technical information is correct and certify "intent to replicate or maximize on their post-transition channel."

Round One of the channel elections takes place in December 2004. Stations with two in-core channels will have to elect which channel they prefer to keep for DTV after the transition. Stations with one in-core and one out-of-core channel will have to elect whether they want to use their in-core channel after the transition. In Round Two, scheduled for July 2005, stations with no in-core channel (analog or digital) elect a post-transition DTV channel from the channels available after Round One. Round Three, in January 2006, opens for station licensees that have not yet been assigned a channel or have been assigned a channel between 2 and 6. These stations may elect a channel from those available after Round Two. The FCC, "based on relevant factors", will resolve any remaining conflicts. In August 2006, the FCC will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing and seeking comment on a new DTV Table of Allotments.

While this approach appears simple, if stations do not define their maximized facilities in Round One it could be difficult for stations in Round Two to decide whether to keep their in core channel or look for another one. Stations with an in-core DTV channel and an out-of-core analog channel that have been unable to maximize their DTV facilities because of interference to existing analog stations will be affected by this. If one of these analog station elects to keep its analog channel for post transition DTV, it could prevent the station with the in-core DTV channel from maximizing coverage unless it moves to a third channel.

Analog high-VHF stations may be affected by co-channel DTV stations outside their market. Major market high-VHF stations could find they may not be able to maximize on their high-VHF analog channel if the out-of-market station elects to keep to keep its co-channel high-VHF DTV channel and maximize. I describe this situation in detail in this month's RF Technology Column, Choosing a Final DTV Channel. Note that even if high-VHF analog station is unable to maximize post-transition DTV coverage on its analog channel, the FCC says they will be permitted to carry-over their maximized service area to their new digital channel if they meet the maximization deadlines described below on their current digital channel.

Under the FCC plan, the requirements for maximizing a DTV facility (if the station chooses to maximize rather than replicate) are based on whether the station is operating on its final DTV channel, whether it is an affiliate of ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC and whether it is in one of the top 100 markets. The earliest maximization deadline, July 2005, applies to stations that receive a tentative digital channel designation on their current digital channel that are in the top 100 markets and affiliated with the top-four networks. If these top-100 market, top-four network stations receive a tentative digital channel designation that isn't their current DTV channel, they are still required to provide DTV coverage to at least 100 percent of their current analog market by this date. The news release does not describe how that 100 percent coverage would be determined. We'll have to wait for the Report and Order to know if an OET-69 analysis will be required, if existing interference has to be counted, or if coverage contours can be used.

The last pre-transition deadline is July 1, 2006. By that date, according to the FCC, "All other commercial station licensees as well as noncommercial licensees that receive a tentative digital channel designation in the channel election process on their current digital channel must construct full, authorized DTV facilities. Such licensees that receive a tentative digital channel designation on a channel that is not their current digital channel must serve at least 80 percent of their analog population coverage."

If stations do not meet these deadlines, they will not be permitted to carry over maximized service areas to their new digital channels.

Much more information than what was provided in the news release will be needed for stations to make intelligent decisions on what channel to elect. I'll be looking for that information in the Report and Order when it is released.

According to the news release, the Report and Order will clarify rules for digital closed captioning, eliminate the simulcasting requirement (for now), clarify rules for interference to broadcasters on channels 51-69, commit to opening a fast-track proceeding on distributed transmission technology, and offer consideration of distributed transmission system deployment on a case-by-case basis until that proceeding is concluded. In addition to the news release FCC Takes Next Steps to Promote Digital TV Transition, also see the TV Technology News Bytes article FCC Rules on DTV Channels, Maximization.