FCC Rules on EAS, DTV Tuners

The FCC this week issued a ruling on the nation's emergency alert system, rejiggered a couple of tuner mandate deadlines and updated the list of out-of-market stations eligible for DBS carriage. The FCC Report and Order on EAS consisted primarily of deadlines for digital implementation. As of Dec. 31, 2006, digital
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The FCC this week issued a ruling on the nation's emergency alert system, rejiggered a couple of tuner mandate deadlines and updated the list of out-of-market stations eligible for DBS carriage.

The FCC Report and Order on EAS consisted primarily of deadlines for digital implementation. As of Dec. 31, 2006, digital broadcast TV and radio; digital cable and satellite radio will have to comply with current EAS rules, i.e., compulsory carriage of nationwide, presidential alerts. DBS has until May 1, 2007.

Based on the staff description of the R&O, local and state level compliance will continue to be voluntary--an arrangement considered by several EAS experts to be a source of disarray in the system. Municipalities and law enforcement agencies can issue Amber Alerts and other local emergency notifications through EAS, but there are inconsistencies about who contacts TV stations and how alerts are activated. In some cases, Amber Alerts--child abduction notifications--are still circulated via fax machine. In other potential emergencies involving weather, hazardous chemical spills or wildfires, TV station news operations are often on top of the situation before authorities have thought to activate EAS.

The EAS system is a relay arrangement in which 24,000 local broadcast and cable systems monitor 550 other broadcasters who monitor 34 radio stations for national alerts. Because no national alert has ever been issued in the 50-year life of the system, and because local and state compliance is not required, receivers occasionally gather dust. In 2003, the FCC issued 80 fines for failure to install or maintain EAS equipment.

Michael Copps was the only commissioner who openly questioned the efficacy of having a voluntary EAS system.

"We need to realize that although EAS is a national system, it also affords state and local authorities the capability to provide emergency information on everything from weather emergencies to Amber Alerts that save abducted children. So we need to decide who exactly, and at what level, can activate this system," he said. "And does it make sense that employment of the system remains voluntary in most instances?"

A Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was initiated to deal with extending EAS capability to wireless and fiber-optic video services, and how to accommodate hearing and vision-impaired individuals and non-English speakers.

The FCC also bumped up the deadlines for when all TVs have to include the capability to receive and decode digital broadcast signals. As of March 1, 2007, all analog TVs, VCRs and DVRs will have to include digital tuners. Previously, the deadline was July 1, 2007, and it did not include sets 13 inches or less. Both the broadcast and the consumer electronics lobbies were satisfied with the proclamation, although the broadcast chief got in a poke at the other guys:

"We're pleased that Chairman Martin and his colleagues have established an even more aggressive timeline for DTV tuner compliance in smaller television sets. This pro-consumer action sends the unmistakable signal to set manufactures that further delays in rolling out DTV receiving equipment are unacceptable," said Eddie Fritts, president and CEO of the National Broadcasters Association.

The Consumer Electronics Association was more conciliatory. A spokesman there shared the following statement:

"We are pleased that the Commission acknowledged the need to provide certainty to manufacturers by accepting March 1, 2007 as the date by which TV receivers 13- to 24-inch sets must contain digital tuners," the spokesman said. "This time period provides the certainty manufacturers need to plan and produce products to help complete the DTV transition."

Although the FCC dropped a satellite-related item from its regular November meeting, a Report and Order was nonetheless issued after the meeting concluded. The Order entailed an update of the FCC's list of significantly viewed stations--broadcast stations whose signals DBS operators are allowed to carry in another market. The update indicates that 23 stations could be pulled from the DBS rolls in 27 markets under FCC exclusivity rules. The list is available at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-187A2.pdf.