MSTV Files Plan For DTV Channel Election and Repacking TV

Under a five step plan the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) submitted to the FCC last week, in early 2006 most TV broadcasters should know the final DTV channels, power and protected coverage areas they will have when analog TV ends. If the FCC accepts the plan and its aggressive timeline, broadcasters will have to make decisions soon that will affect their DTV future. In many cases, it is impossible to determine what the final coverage will be from a given DTV channel due to uncertainty about other stations' choices for DTV transmitter facilities. The five steps in the MSTV plan are designed to systematically remove that uncertainty.

Under the plan, step 1 - FCC database correction, could begin as early as this month with an FCC order to freeze new applications for DTV channel changes, new DTV allotments and modification to DTV facilities "if the modifications would expand the service area of the existing authorized facility in any direction or cause an increase in interference to any other authorized facility." Pending applications would not be affected. During a 45-day window the FCC would open at the same time, stations would be allowed to make corrections to the database to account for existing modifications to facilities and errors in the database. During this phase, the FCC would also push to resolve outstanding cases requiring coordination with Mexico and Canada, with a goal of having the necessary approvals by September 2004 so that these stations would have an opportunity to construct and operate maximized DTV facilities.

In September 2004, the FCC would issue a preliminary revised DTV database that incorporates the corrections and changes that were filed during the 45-day window. Similar to the existing DTV Table of Allotments, the new data would specify each station's protected service area and population, including replication or maximized service. Stations that hadn't constructed full replicating or maximized DTV facilities would have to file a certified statement of intent to construct those (or lesser) facilities. If stations failed to construct facilities consistent with their certification, they would be subject to "subsequent FCC action."

The last part of step 1 takes place in February 2005, when the FCC would release a final DTV database listing all eligible DTV licensees and specifying their final protected service areas and population, including maximized DTV service commitments. This new database would provide the basis for stations to determine the levels of interference that would result from their channel choices.

The second step of the process covers the first round of channel elections. In June 2005, stations with two in-core channels would specify which channel they would keep and stations with two out-of-core channels would specify a preference for three channels they could ultimately use in their market. A station that chooses to go back to its analog channel would have to protect the DTV service area and population of stations that remain on their DTV channel, but at this time would not relinquish its right to return to its DTV channel, which would continue to be protected.

Step 3 begins in October 2005, when the FCC would issue provisional authorizations based on the first round of elections to in-core stations that elected to remain on their in-core DTV channels. DTV licensees that elected to go back to their analog channel would be given provisional authorization if post-transitional DTV operation on that channel would not cause additional interference to stations that elected to stay on their DTV channel and to in-core channels (NTSC or DTV) of licensees that have one out-of-core channel. Operation on the channel would also have to provide service to the greater of their NTSC Grade B service areas and populations or their maximized DTV service areas and populations. Stations with two out-of-core channels would be given a provisional authorization if one of their three channel choices would not cause interference to the channels elected by in-core licenses or the in-core channels of licensees that have one out-of-core channel.

Step 4 would open a second round of elections in December 2005 once the provisional authorizations are issued. Stations that picked their NTSC channel in the first round but did not receive a provisional authorization due to losses in their replicating or maximized service areas would be able to elect to use that channel notwithstanding the service loss. If they did this, they would relinquish the right to stay on their DTV channels after the transition. Stations that did not make a filing to accept the reduced coverage would be deemed to have elected to remain on their DTV channel. In January 2006, licensees with one out-of-core channel would be permitted to request a third channel, as would licensees with two low VHF channels. Licensees with two out-of-core channels that did not receive a provisional authorization because their channel choices could not be accommodated would be able to select three new channels based on the channels that remained vacant after the first round of elections and the December 2005 elections of stations that had originally elected to use their NTSC channels.

Finally, in step 5, sometime later in 2006, the FCC would resolve any conflicts in requests from stations and issue licenses reflecting the final DTV Table of Allotments. In resolving conflicts, early adopters of DTV would receive preference under the MSTV plan. There are some issues that the plan doesn't cover. For example, in congested markets such as New York and Los Angeles, some stations with one out-of-core channel have been not been able to maximize because of the interference maximization would cause to existing analog or DTV stations, leaving them with power levels significantly lower than other stations in the market, even if they do meet the replication criteria. It appears these maximization requests could be handled late in step 4, where it may be easier for such a station to maximize power on its existing DTV channel once stations with two in-core channels elect their final DTV channel rather than attempt to find a third channel that may be able to be maximized in the future.

If you are a TV broadcaster, this plan deserves your attention. During a presentation at NAB, MSTV's Victor Tawil illustrated the challenges facing broadcasters in coming up with a final DTV table. In the New York and Philadelphia markets, which are close enough that co-channel assignments present interference problems, there are 43 DTV licensees and five channels reserved for land-mobile use. There are a total of 49 core DTV channels (including channels 2-6); assuming channel 6 can't be used due to FM interference, this leaves one channel per station. If low-VHF channels are avoided, it appears there will have to be some channel sharing between these markets. Add in surrounding markets like Hartford, Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Baltimore, and you should begin to get an idea of the tremendous task ahead. This repacking will not only affect full service TV broadcasters, it will also impact LPTV and Class A low power licensees.
The MSTV Channel Election and Repacking Process filed with the FCC is available for downloading. There is much more detail in it than I can present here.