FCC Rules on DTV Channels, Maximization

The FCC issued a slew of decisions this week that it hopes will accelerate the DTV transition.

The commission approved rules that establish firm deadlines for broadcasters to maximize DTV power levels, set up a channel election process starting in November 2004 for broadcasters to choose their final DTV allotment, require broadcasters to transmit PSIP information in the DTV signal and eliminate for now the simulcasting requirement.

The channel election process -- modeled after an MSTV proposal -- started on August 3, 2004 when the commission froze new applications for DTV channel allotments in order to "stabilize the database." Broadcasters will have until October 1, 2004 to verify the accuracy of database technical information.

The first round of elections will take place in December when stations with two in-core channels will elect which one will be their DTV channel and licensees with one in-core and one out of core channel elect whether to use their in-core channel as a permanent DTV channel.

In July 2005 a second round will allow stations without a current in-core channel to elect a channel from those available after the first round. Round Three will take place in January 2006 when stations not yet assigned a channel or assigned Channels 2-6 will get to pick from those channels available after Round Two.

The FCC will provide updates between rounds on what channels are protected, which are in conflict and which are available.

In addition, the commission also set deadlines for requiring broadcasters to maximize digital broadcasts. Since 2001, the commission has allowed broadcasters initiating DTV to broadcast at low power, but until now had not specified a timeframe for broadcasters to go full power. The commission set a July 2005 deadline for ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations in the top 100 markets and July 2006 for the rest.

The commission also voted to require broadcasters to carry PSIP (program and system information protocol) in their DTV signals. PSIP is a data stream carried in the DTV signal that tells receiving devices to act on certain commands, including channel identification, closed captioning, program guides and V-chip.

Citing increasing DTV sales, the availability of more HDTV programming and channels and the introduction of mandated DTV tuners on the market, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell said the steps the commission had taken under his guidance were finally bearing fruit.

"In making this substantial progress, the national dialogue has shifted from wondering if the DTV transition would ever end to exploring when it should end," Powell said.

Dissension among commissioners mainly focused on tying the DTV transition to broadcasters' public interest obligations. Commissioner Michael Copps criticized that missing element.

"If the American people are to realize the full benefits of DTV, we have to call the public interest issues forward and accord them the high priority they deserve," Copps said.