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Low-power TV and digital channels

Tue, 12/31/1996 - 7:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, Digital Television Powerhouse and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy
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By Jeffrey Krauss, digital television powerhouse and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

With that controversy out of the way, we can move to the next one: Should low-power TV (LPTV) stations get digital channels? In my opinion, the only controversy is whether the answer is "no" or "of course not." But the LPTV broadcasters are mounting a lobbying campaign in Washington, trying to get a different answer out of the FCC.

Translators

The LPTV service originally began as pirate broadcaster cooperatives in remote rural areas. Neighbors took up a collection, installed a high-gain directional receive antenna on a mountaintop to receive the TV broadcasts from Denver or Boise or Minneapolis, and then rebroadcast the signal on a different channel with a low-power TV transmitter. It was illegal. They were stealing the broadcast signal, and using TV frequencies they were not licensed to use. But they got away with it, after some Congressmen pointed out to the FCC that they weren't causing any harm, and they were serving communities that were too small to justify their own TV stations. These low-power stations were called "translators" because they translated the broadcast station to a different frequency for rebroadcasting.

After awhile, broadcasters realized that translators were good for them because they increased their viewing audience. Broadcast stations even began paying for the installation and operating costs. Today, there are more than 4,800 translators, or three times the number of full-power licensed TV stations.

But translators are "secondary" users of the spectrum. They must not cause any interference to full- power TV stations. That was never a problem, because translators were installed in remote rural areas where there were no local TV stations to interfere with, and where there was plenty of unused TV spectrum.

Low-power TV

In the late 1970s, the LPTV idea was born. The idea behind LPTV was to take translator technology and add local origination capability. Maybe only a few hours of programming a day are locally originated; the rest can be satellite-delivered. Maybe all the programming could be satellite-delivered. The FCC liked the idea that these LPTV stations could be owned by minorities and could feature minority-oriented programming.

It was agreed that LPTV stations would be low-power and secondary, and would not cause interference to existing TV stations. In doing the interference analysis, it turned out that some of these stations could even be dropped into major metropolitan areas. That made them valuable. Today, there are roughly 1,800 licensed LPTV stations in the U.S. Some broadcast Spanish-language programming. Some broadcast programming in a variety of foreign languages. Some carry religious programming. Some broadcast shopping channels (I guess that serves one kind of minority group).

Some LPTV licensees have big plans. One licensee operates an 11-channel LPTV system in Duncan, Ariz., near the Arizona-New Mexico border, and (so far as I can tell from a map) truly in the middle of nowhere. And another licensee operates an 8-channel system in St. James, Minn., near the Iowa border. It's hard to imagine these guys competing successfully against DirecTV.

LPTV digital channel assignments

Because LPTV stations and translators are secondary, they have to move out of the way if a full-power station comes along. In the early 1980s, nobody envisioned that each full-power TV station would get another 6 MHz channel for digital TV. The FCC's proposed channel allotment plan for digital TV simply treats translators like they don't exist. That's proper, because from a spectrum policy viewpoint, LPTV stations are not entitled to any protection or interference rights.

As I reported in the October 1996 "Capital Currents" column, the FCC's digital channel allotment plan was a result of careful calculations that made it possible to assign every one of the 1,600 full-power TV stations an additional channel to use for digital broadcasting. But finding a new channel for every LPTV station would be an impossible task.

Translators will also be affected, but by lesser amounts, because they are mostly located in areas where broadcast spectrum is sparsely used. And those 11-channel and 8-channel LPTV systems will probably survive. But I would not be so optimistic about the LPTV stations on channels 43, 47 and 57 in Denver, or channels 8, 46 and 65 in Milwaukee, or on channel 53 in New York City. In fact, most LPTV stations in the mid- to large-sized urban markets will probably lose their current channel and have to go off the air.

Is that fair? Yes it is. That's what "secondary" means. And anyway, circumstances have changed drastically since LPTV was conceived 20 years ago. With several satellite services to choose from, as well as MMDS and cable, and with LMDS on the horizon, and considering that all the programming carried by LPTV stations is also available from these other sources, maybe the time for LPTV has passed.

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