As of this writing, the FCC is expected to adopt digital television ("DTV") service rules and a final table of DTV channel allotments and assignments soon, possibly at its April 3 meeting. The rules that will govern provision of DTV service and the assignment of DTV channels have been the source of considerable controversy and will profoundly affect the future of DTV service in the United States.
The FCC's preliminary table of DTV allotments was adopted last July in its Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (the "Sixth Further Notice"). In the Sixth Further Notice, the FCC proposed to grant existing television licensees a paired channel, generally contained within a core spectrum consisting of channels 7 through 51, on which to broadcast DTV programming. Some of the key issues to be addressed by the FCC are described below.
A key principle behind the FCC's approach in the Sixth Further Notice was "replication;" i.e., each existing broadcaster would be able to replicate its existing Grade B contours on its paired DTV channel. The FCC anticipated that licensees generally would broadcast simultaneously on both their NTSC and DTV channels for a period of time, but that at some point in the future after a sufficient percentage of viewers have DTV receivers, broadcasters would be required to surrender one of their two channels and continue DTV broadcasts on a channel contained within the core spectrum of channels 7 through 51. The surrendered channels would then be auctioned by the FCC.
Television licensees, led by a group known as the "Broadcasters Caucus," objected strongly to the core channel concept. The Caucus proposed a table of allotments and assignments that moved away from the core channel approach by contemplating the full use of channels 2 through 59, and to a lesser extent channels 60 through 69, for DTV service. While some broadcasters are cautiously optimistic that the FCC will modify the core channel concept with respect to channels 2 through 6, and possibly channels 52 through 59, there is less optimism regarding channels 60 through 69. In Congress, Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced legislation requiring that some channels in the 60 through 69 group be given to public service agencies while the other channels in this group would be auctioned.
Competitive Replication and Power Caps
In reply comments to the Sixth Further Notice, the Caucus and certain UHF licensees also raised the concern that VHF stations that are assigned a paired DTV channel in the UHF band ("VHF-to-UHF" stations) would be allotted far more power to replicate their Grade B contours than would UHF stations having a paired UHF channel ("UHF-to-UHF" stations). While these power levels would enable theoretical replication of the Grade B contours of the VHF-to-UHF and the UHF-to-UHF stations, they could put the UHF-to-UHF stations at a competitive disadvantage; viewers relying upon indoor antennas may be able to receive the more powerful DTV signals of the VHF-to-UHF stations, but not the weaker signals of the UHF-to-UHF stations.
The Caucus and certain licensees proposed a transition period during which this problem could be studied and recommendations made to the FCC on how it could be addressed. Certain licensees also proposed that, during this transition period, UHF-to-UHF stations be allowed to operate their DTV stations at twice their allocated power, that at least 50KW of power be allocated to all UHF-to-UHF stations, and that the power of VHF-to-UHF stations be capped at 500KW to 1MW. The issue of a cap became a significant one, particularly for VHF-to-UHF stations, when it was reported that the FCC staff is considering the imposition of a permanent 1MW cap as opposed to a cap that would be in effect only during the transition period.
Another controversial issue involves the schedule for rollout of DTV service. Chairman Hundt has vocally promoted a rapid rollout schedule contemplating commencement of DTV service by the networks in the top 10 markets within one year, despite broadcasters' concerns about the practical difficulties involved in accelerated rollout (e.g., zoning and FAA approval delays, and the unavailability of tower crews and equipment). Certain broadcasters have countered with a proposal that contemplates DTV rollout in a number of major markets within two years. To address concerns about rollout delays due to circumstances beyond broadcasters' control, the FCC is being asked to adopt a liberal waiver policy.
As of this writing, DTV issues are not on the agenda for the FCC's April 3 meeting. However, that agenda could be revised or the FCC could adopt a DTV table of allotments and DTV rules on circulation.