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FCC Relaxes Some Conditions Of DTV Broadcast Deadlines

The Federal Communications Commission recently reaffirmed its deadlines for commercial television broadcasters to begin digital television transmission next spring, but relaxed some conditions in that directive to ease the expense of the transition for some stations.

In what the FCC called a “mid-course correction” in the DTV transition process, commercial broadcasters were told they must comply with the standing May 1, 2002, deadline to be on the air with DTV. But in an apparent concession, they are now permitted to build temporary lower-powered transmitters and less expensive DTV facilities, while keeping the right to expand their coverage area further down the road.

The FCC also temporarily put off its earlier requirement that commercial broadcasters replicate their entire current grade B NTSC analog service area with their DTV signal by Dec. 31, 2004 (Dec. 31, 2005, for noncommercial stations), or lose interference protection to the unserved areas. Stations are permitted to construct facilities that offer DTV services to their “community of license,” and will be granted interference protection to their allotted coverage area.

The commission said that in certain circumstances it would consider financial hardship in granting extensions on construction deadlines.

TV stations were also allowed to operate digitally at a reduced schedule by providing at least a digital signal during prime-time hours.

The modified operating requirement does not affect simulcast obligations, which stipulate that by April 1, 2003, a DTV station must provide a digital signal at least 50 percent of the time it transmits an analog signal; on April 1, 2004, 75 percent; and on April 1, 2005, 100 percent.

Holding to the ultimate deadline, the FCC said amended deadlines will not be later than the end of 2006, or when 85 percent of the TV households in a licensee’s market are capable of receiving the signals of digital broadcast stations, whichever is later.

The FCC said its amendments are intended to maximize the number of DTV stations on the air and provide “an incentive to consumers to purchase DTV equipment.”

At the same time, the FCC put off decisions on a number of controversial technical issues, including receiver performance standards, requirements for DTV tuners, the requirements for use of ATSC Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) standard, and labeling requirements for TV receivers.