Well, here it is at last. Finally, more than 13 years after the 1996 Act created a scheme to transfer us to digital television by giving all existing broadcasters $70 billion (at the time) in new spectrum rights, the great day of reckoning is here.
Give the FCC and NTIA, especially mid-season replacements Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps and Acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez, massive applause for seeing this through to the end. You guys rock! As one of your 300 Million taxpayer bosses, I’m telling you to sleep in tomorrow. Oh yeah, it’s Saturday.
Once you’re back on Monday, however, and assuming the world as we know it did not end, we have a few items left on the clean up list: Wireless Microphones, LPTV, the UHF Discount for Ownership, and Public Interest Obligations.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Libby Beaty, Executive Director of NATOA. A tireless advocate for the importance of local government and its power to protect consumer interests. Today, Libby tragically lost her battle with lung cancer. She will be sorely missed.
More below . . . .
Isn’t it always the way of things. You get through a decade-long transition process costing the public billions and reshaping one of our major cultural institutions, and someone has a list of loose ends. Happily, it’s a short list. But its got some pretty important stuff we shouldn’t forget about.
WIRELESS MICROPHONES IN THE 700 MHZ BAND
I have an annoying leak in my basement that I discovered as we’ve been deluged with rain this past month. I keep not wanting to deal with it, because it is at best a nuisance and at worst an expensive pain in the rear. If I keep up this clever strategy, my foundation will suffer serious damage and threaten the structural integrity of my house.
Amusingly, this makes a great metaphor for the problem of wireless microphones in the 700 MHz band. Thanks to the marketing practices of wireless microphone manufacturers, and the lack of FCC enforcement over the years, some ungodly number of wireless microphones capable of operating on the 700 MHz band (I’ve estimated about a million based on what industry data is available, but I’m told this is low). Unfortunately, according to this report submitted by V-Comm, these devices have the capability to screw up the deployment of new public safety services and commercial services in the band.
Despite taking care of a good deal of the details of the transition out of the 700 MHz band in 2003, the FCC managed to completely miss the wireless microphone problem until I pointed it out to them in this Petition for Rulemaking back in July ’08. The FCC issued a proposed rule and put our Petition on notice in August ’08, promising swift action before the (then scheduled) end of analog in February ’09.
Despite repeated pleas from Verizon, CTIA and various public safety groups begging for some sort of quick action to resolve this so that they can figure out how to deploy systems and what the interference risk might be, the FCC has apparently done nothing. Despite the addition of four more months on the transition time, the Chairman’s office has not even circulated an Order. Like my leaky basement, the FCC has apparently found this too much of a pain in the neck to address. And, like my leaky basement, the longer the FCC waits, the more likely it is going to seriously screw up the foundation of the new 700 MHz wireless services.
Yes, with a hearing for new FCC Chair Julius Genachowski (and Commissioner McDowell’s reconfirmation) scheduled for June 16, it seems like an easy call to just let this sit until Genachowski is confirmed and takes over. The problem is that we are already delaying deployment of these services. There is absolutely no guarantee that the full Senate will move quickly to confirm, and the longer we wait the more we delay deployment — a delay which will ripple and rebound over the next few years.
Doing nothing really does screw things up, and the longer we delay, the more screwed up it will get. Please get to work on this Monday morning.
Low Power Television
Although today is the last day for analog full power broadcasting, you can still catch some analog broadcasts from low power TV. Congress exempted LPTV from the mandatory switch over because of concern that not all LPTVs could afford the equipment to make the transition. Unfortunately because LPTV stations generally don’t have must carry rights, and some of the converter boxes from DTV signal to something your old analog TV can understand do not pass through any remaining analog signals, LPTV stations have been worried that they will lose substantial audience share (how much is hard to predict). Many of these stations provide Spanish language programming or other programming oriented toward niche audiences overlooked by full power stations.
Various efforts to address this, such as Kevin Martin’s effort to give LPTV’s must carry rights without explicit Congressional authority, never got off the ground in the old FCC. Congress did create a program, administered by NTIA, to help fund LPTV conversion in rural areas. That;s good, but we still don’t know what the impact of the DTV conversion on LPTV will be. The FCC needs to be prepared to assess this on an ongoing basis and take action if it looks like LPTV is on the wrong side of the “digital (TV) divide.”
The UHF Discount
This is a media ownership thing. Recall that we have a national audience reach limit of approximately 40%. That is to say, no entity can own stations capable of reaching 40% of the U.S. population. You can read about this all the way back in my very first blog post.
Because the range of analog UHF channels is shorter than that of analog VHF channels, and because UHF was a much later service and considered much crappier than VHF when it started, the FCC gave you a “discount” for UHF stations. They only counted for 50% of the theoretical population reach in their assigned market area. Whatever merit there was to this distinction, it has now officially ended. The range for UHF and VHF are the same for DTV. In fact, it is several of the former VHF channels, Channels 2-6, that have the technical challenges these days.
Back in 2003, when the FCC issued its deregulatory order, it promised to look at the “UHF discount” issue after the transition. Back then, of course, with no official hard date, this looked like a harmless promise. Guess what guys Times Up!!. With the 2007 media ownership Order on remand before Commission, now is a swell time for the FCC to start looking at whether to eliminate the UHF discount — and whether to grandfather companies like News Corp. who would be seriously over the limit without the discount.
Digital Public Interest Obligations
And what walk through DTV memory lane would be complete without a nod to the Gore Commission Report on Public Interest Obligations for the Digital Age. The relevant section of the Communications Act governing the DTV conversion (47 USC 336) makes it clear that broadcasters still hold their licenses in the public interest and therefore still have “public interest obligations” to serve the purposes of the act: notably enhancing the diversity of voices available in the electronic media and keeping us all informed on news necessary for democratic self-governance. So the Clinton Administration put together a big committee under then-VP Al Gore that included all the relevant stakeholders, from broadcaster to public interest organizations, and then were surprised when they couldn’t agree on much. (I swear to God, if we’d done policy in 1909 the way we did it in 1999 or 2009 we would have allowed blacksmiths and farriers to dictate the terms under which the public could have access to automobiles — with the music sheet publishing industry demanding that toll takers stop all vehicles to search for piano rolls because automobile transport makes copyright violation easier).
In 1999, based on the Gore Report, the FCC began a proceeding on appropriate public interest obligations for digital broadcasters. The FCc made some modest progress on this in 2007 when Kevin Martin joined Copps and Adelstein to push something through as a balance to his relaxing the newspaper cross-ownership rule. But for the most part, the public interest obligations (PIOs) for digital broadcasters remain as undefined and vague as they became for analog broadcasters. The FCC needs to close out this piece of unfinished business and either create some real PIOs that have a real enforcement mechanisms or just give up already and stop pretending we care.
So join me now, as we conclude our broadcasting day, with the sign off from my old local station WSBK TV-38, back when it was locally owned, and we insomniacs had nothing to watch for several hours but test patterns.
Stay tuned . . . .