Seeking Flexibility for Final Buildout

Television stations will face difficult if not impossible obstacles as they push toward full-power DTV and the end of analog broadcasts in February 2009 if they don’t get some flexibility in the rules of the final changeover, broadcasters told the FCC in August.
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WASHINGTON
Television stations will face difficult if not impossible obstacles as they push toward full-power DTV and the end of analog broadcasts in February 2009 if they don’t get some flexibility in the rules of the final changeover, broadcasters told the FCC in August.

In nutshell, broadcasters want the freedom to plot their own course to reach the DTV transition’s final goal of full-power DTV, on a final channel, along with the end of analog. That means the maximum coverage contours in the recently issued final Table of Allotments should be seen as the parameters in which a DTV station is permitted to operate, not the levels at which it is required to operate. And the FCC should allow early termination of analog, liberal acceptance of flash-cut applications, and either early or late transitions to full-power DTV.

NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) have outlined the industry’s predicaments and requests for relief with the FCC. Scores of stations and station groups have explained their individual situations to the commission as well.

FINITE TOWER SPACE

Allbritton Communications, owner of eight stations, explained the situation for those stations now using top-mounted analog antennas.

A top-mounted antenna can’t simply stay on top while a top-mounted DTV antenna is installed, nor can it just be moved to a side-mount position, the company said in an FCC filing, echoing the concerns of many others. The station would have to somehow find an appropriate side-mounted antenna to use in the interim, reducing coverage and losing viewers. Even if that were possible, a station might have to operate three antennas (the side-mounted temporary DTV antenna; the side-mounted lame-duck analog antenna; and the new top-mounted DTV antenna, until it’s operable and the other DTV antenna can be removed). Finding enough tower space and support is unlikely.

So, NAB and MSTV propose that stations be allowed to reduce analog service as early as Feb. 17, 2008—one full year before analog’s final scheduled trans- mission—and to end analog en-tirely six months ahead, on Aug. 17. 2008. Under current rules, they must satisfy a multi-pronged test to reduce analog power by more than 5 percent.

The hundreds of broadcasters (103, just counting public broadcasters) operating on temporary DTV channels are tired of investing in facilities that aren’t permanent. They want to be allowed to transition to final channels up to six months ahead of the deadline if they cause minimal interference—up to 2 percent to analog stations and 0.5 percent to digital.

After the analog shutoff, stations want freedom to take their time—up to one year—to ramp up to full DTV power. Conversely, says NAB and MSTV, those on temporary channels should be allowed to stay there after the deadline if they cause less than 0.5 percent interference.

CRUNCHTIME

Flexibility is also needed, broadcasters say, in part because of an expected run on equipment and tower crews around the time of the Feb. 17, 2009 deadline, and because stations across the country will have a tough time doing tower work in the dead of winter.

Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology for Harris, explained some of the difficulties in making a switchover even if all the big pieces are in place. There are new exciters and filters, changes to metering circuits and software. “You put all that together, it’s probably a week worth of work,” he said.

But that’s work that has to be done by manufacturers and their crews according to their availability, not by the stations themselves.

Adrick notes that FCC rules as they stand now expect all stations at full-power DTV at the end of analog.

“You can’t have it both ways,” DTV consultant Merrill Weiss said. “It’s physically impossible.”

“We really can’t get there,” Adrick agreed. “We have to have slack on the front side with analog, or slack after the analog shutoff.”

After analog ends, assuming they gain flexibility from the FCC, broadcasters will be working to maximize their DTV signals, and not just for traditional screens.

Mark Polovick, vice president of sales and marketing for Acrodyne, said stations will carefully figure out how to reach as many people as possible with DTV; he predicts a “paradigm shift” as mobile DTV advances.

“The smart guys are going to take a look at every single square block, because the only thing that’s going to keep them alive is mobile handheld,” he said.

For public stations, clear rules are needed quickly, because many of them depend on federal funds for their digital buildouts. Specifically, the Commerce Department cannot release Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) funds until it receives confirmation from the FCC that necessary authorizations are in place. “Thus stations are able to receive little, if any, of their federal funding without valid construction permits, which they cannot obtain until after the commission completes the present rulemaking,” the Association for Public Television Stations and PBS told the FCC.