On September 17, 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) addressing the digital transition for low power television stations, Class A television stations and television translators (hereinafter referred to collectively as "low power television stations"). Initial comments are due 60 days from Federal Register publication, and replies are due 30 days later. The FNPRM can be found on the internet here. The major issues raised in the FNPRM are discussed below.

Digital Transition Deadline for Low Power Television Stations: In order to bring digital low power television to the public quickly and free up spectrum for potential reallocation under the agency's National Broadband Plan, the FCC seeks comment on a proposal to set a 2012 transition deadline for low power television stations to transition to digital-only operations. Related to this issue, the FCC solicits opinion on the following matters:

  • whether such a transition date would afford low power television stations enough time to convert to digital or whether the FCC should adopt another date, such as the end of 2015 or a date after the reallocation of broadcast spectrum under the National Broadband Plan is complete;
  • the feasibility of using VHF channels, at increased power, for digital operations;
  • how to handle stations that, despite best efforts, are unable to meet the transition deadline;
  • whether the agency should allow stations in communities that rely solely on over-the-air service additional time to convert to digital-only operations;
  • equipment and other costs of digital conversion that stations will incur;
  • financial obstacles facing stations, including stations serving specialized and minority audiences, foreign language communities, and rural areas; and
  • what type of outreach the agency should do to educate consumers about the transition, including, but not necessarily limited to, expanding the FCC's existing call center, encouraging the development of third-party call centers and walk-in centers, FCC initiatives targeted to specific communities, and information placed on the Commission's website.

Digital Transition for Low Power Television Stations Operating in the 700 MHz Band: The Commission's goal is to free up spectrum in the 700 MHz band quickly, so as to make it available for commercial wireless and public safety use. Accordingly, the FCC seeks comment on two proposals meant to expedite this process:

  • The FCC asks whether it should require each low power television station operating on an out-of-core channel (i.e., channels 52 through 69) to (1) submit a digital displacement application to move to an in-core channel by June 30, 2011 and (2) terminate operations in the 700 MHz band entirely by December 31, 2011. The Commission seeks comment on these proposed deadlines and welcomes input concerning alternate timelines. The FNPRM also asks how the agency should handle stations that, despite best efforts, cannot identify an in-core channel and submit a displacement application by the relevant deadline.
  • Under the FCC's rules, an existing or future wireless licensee in the 700 MHz spectrum may notify a digital low power television station operating on the same channel or first adjacent channel of its intention to initiate or change wireless operations and the likelihood of interference from the station within its licensed geographic service area. Upon receipt of such notice, the low power television licensee generally must cease operation within 120 days unless the wireless licensee agrees to let the low power television station's operations continue. The FCC seeks comment on expanding this notification/termination procedure to include analog low power television stations as well.

Surrender of Channels: The FCC seeks comment on the following issues related to digital companion channel authorizations:

  • The FCC asks whether a station choosing to surrender its analog station license and continue operating its digital companion channel should be permitted to simply notify the Commission of this decision, and whether the agency should delegate to the Media Bureau the authority to determine the timetable and procedures for such notifications.
  • If a low power television licensee holds a construction permit for unbuilt analog and digital companion stations and the analog permit expires, theFNPRM asks if the digital construction permit should be forfeited as well, notwithstanding its later expiration date. Similarly, the Commission asks how it should address situations in which the digital companion channel facility is constructed and the construction permit for the related unbuilt analog station expires.
  • Currently, low power television stations are permitted to terminate analog operations and transition to digital without notice to the public. TheFNPRM seeks comment on whether this policy should continue or whether notice to the public should be required.

Digital Transition for Class A TV Stations: In order for a Class A television station to secure primary, protected status on its final digital channel, the FCC proposes that the licensee file a minor change application for either the "flash cut" channel on which the station is now operating in analog or the digital companion channel the station chooses to retain for post-transition operations. The FNPRM also proposes that such applications certify that the proposed facilities meet all Class A interference protection requirements. The agency seeks comment on these proposals.

Ancillary and Supplementary Services: Currently, only a licensed low power station is required to file an Annual DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report (FCC Form 317) and, if it provided such services during the 12 month period covered by the report, remit 5 percent of the gross revenues derived from such services to the agency. The FNPRM proposes expanding this requirement to include permittees of digital low power television stations operating pursuant to STA.

Definition of "Minor Change": Under existing rules, a low power television station may file an analog or digital modification application as a minor change as long as there is contour overlap between the proposed and existing facilities. This allows licensees to use minor change procedures to move their stations a substantial distance. To deter this, the FCC seeks comment on changing its procedures such that any digital low power television modification that proposes a change in transmitter site of greater than 30 miles from the reference coordinates of the existing station's antenna location would not be considered a minor change, but rather a new proposal for a low power television station.

Antenna Vertical Radiation Pattern: When evaluating service and potential interference for digital low power station proposals, the FCC uses a modified version of the full-power DTV methodology. Under this approach, the FCC assumes that the downward relative field strengths for digital and analog low power television stations are double the values specified in OET Bulletin 69, Table 8, up to a maximum of 1.000 dBu. The agency asks if it should change this standard so it relies on actual vertical patterns of proposed low power television stations instead of assumed values and whether is should modify FCC Forms 346 and 301-CA to collect this data. The FNPRM also asks whether the power levels and interference protection criteria in the rules are appropriate to deliver service to consumers, if modifications are needed and, if so, whether specific testing is needed to verify such modifications or to determine the digital signal strength in specific geographic locations.

Use of Full-Power DTV Emission Mask by Low Power Television Stations: Many low power television applicants have stated that, in areas with limited frequency availability, use of the full-power DTV emission mask will allow them to secure a channel. The National Broadband Plan also recommends allowing low power television stations to use technologies like mask filters to enable more efficient channel allotments. Accordingly, the FCC asks whether it should allow low power television stations to use full-power DTV emission masks.

Filing Freeze: In addition to the foregoing inquiries, the FNPRM institutes an immediate freeze on the filing of (1) applications for new analog low power television stations and (2) applications for new or modified, analog or digital, low power television stations on out-of-core channels, including those for flash-cut and digital companion facilities on such channels.