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FCC Regulatory Fee Schedule Released: UHF Stations Still Pay Less

TV stations with analog VHF channels will pay significantly higher regulatory fees this year according to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Order on the Assessment and Collection of Regulatory Fees for 2009 (FCC 09-38) released yesterday.

The FCC maintained the policy it has followed since the start of the DTV transition—fees are assessed on analog station licenses, not the digital licenses.

The difference in proposed fees for VHF and UHF stations is significant. For example, VHF stations in San Diego (Market 28) would pay $37,575 in regulatory fees, while UHF stations in the same market will pay only $13,350.under the proposed fee schedule.

These fees are assessed to recover the regulatory costs associated with the FCC's enforcement, policy and rulemaking, user information and international activities. For 2009, the FCC is obligated to collect more than $341 million in fees. The FCC allocates these costs between all the services it regulates. Even Amateur Radio operators have to pay a regulatory fee if they want a "vanity" call sign. For some services, the fees are paid when the license is issued or renewed, while others, like broadcast station licenses and broadcast auxiliary licenses, are assessed annually. For broadcasters, the fee is based on licenses or initial construction permits granted on or before Oct. 1, 2008.

Will the FCC maintain the same distinction between UHF and VHF digital TV licenses in next year's fee assessment? That may be difficult. Many engineers would argue that since few households have outdoor antennas, VHF stations no longer have an advantage over UHF stations. One approach would be to base the fees on the major channel number (the original analog channel), but that could create a situation where a VHF DTV station is paying UHF regulatory fees based on its old analog channel while a UHF DTV station pays a much higher fee because it had a VHF analog channel. How would the fee be determined for stations that never had an analog channel?

A simple option would be to adopt the same fees for all TV stations in a market, but that would be a greater burden for small TV stations catering to niche audiences. Another option would be higher fees for stations with the highest ratings or for stations affiliated with major networks. Any choice is likely to be controversial.

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Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.