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DTV delay now law, but confusion still persists over 700 MHz

Many broadcasters are shutting off transmitters early, opening up spectrum to operators but raising concerns with the FCC

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President Obama may have signed DTV delay legislation late Wednesday, extending the deadline to June 12 for broadcasters to stop analog TV transmissions, but the issue is far from settled. Many broadcasters are opting to make the cutover early, which could free up spectrum all over the country for 700 MHz license holders to deploy mobile broadband and TV services before the summer. That move has raised the ire of the FCC, which is forcing some broadcasters to keep transmitting a portion of their programming until the new deadline.

Four hundred ninety-one stations have sent notices to the FCC that they will shut off their analog feeds on or before Feb. 17, having already spent millions preparing their networks and viewers for the original transition date. The stations are scattered throughout the country, and at first glance the early cutoff would appear to be good news for the 700 MHz license holders targeting the spectrum for new mobile services. But the patchwork distribution of networks going off air does little good for companies planning nationwide rollouts.

Qualcomm is trying to clear spectrum in four key markets—Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco—where broadcasters transmitting at Channel 55 or neighboring channels prevent it from launching its FLO TV mobile video service. Of the stations on those bands in those four markets, only one is making the cutover early: the Bay Area’s KFTY. But two other stations in San Francisco and Oakland, KTEH on Channel 54 and Fox affiliate KTVU on channel 56, are staying on air, preventing Qualcomm from going live in that market.

In some smaller markets such as Bakersfield, Calif.; Knoxville, Tenn., and even Honolulu, all broadcasters have decided to go dark at 700 MHz next week. Such moves would have completely cleared the 700 MHz bands in those markets for operators like Qualcomm and Verizon, but the FCC is stepping in to make sure that the airwaves don’t go completely static after Feb. 17.

While the FCC is allowing 368 stations to proceed with analog service termination next week, it is holding up approval for 123 stations in markets where all or a majority of broadcasters are keeping to the original deadline, citing the public interest provision. The FCC is requiring broadcasters in those markets either to work cooperatively to identify one or more stations in their market that will continue to broadcast, at minimum, an “enhanced nightlight” transmission containing local news and public affairs programming as well as DTV transition and emergency information.

Speaking at a media event Wednesday, FCC Chairman Michael Copps said the restrictions were necessary to ensure that millions of Americans aren’t cut off from their primary source of news and information while the government steps up efforts to get them digital converter boxes. Copps readily admitted that the DTV transition and converter box was handled poorly, but he said average Americans shouldn’t be punished for it.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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