FCC Eases DTV-Transition Rules

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After months of lobbying, broadcasters convinced the Federal Communications
Commission to adopt new policies designed to ease the financial burden in making
the transition to digital television.

In a series of moves, the FCC relaxed certain policies without actually
changing the May 1, 2002, deadline for all 1,300 commercial TV stations to have
digital signals on the air.

In a unanimous vote, the FCC said TV stations could begin the transition at
lower power levels and ramp up from there. That will save broadcasters the
expense of buying full-market facilities and paying high electric bills in the
transition's early stages.

Under a prior rule overturned by its action, the FCC had required
broadcasters to replicate their analog signals with digital-TV transmissions by
Dec. 31, 2004, or run the risk of losing interference protection from other
users of the spectrum in unreplicated areas.

In another decision, the FCC required digital-TV stations to be on the air
during primetime or 22 hours per week, but not 24 hours per day.

TV stations still have the right to seek waivers from the May 1 deadline, but
the FCC said those stations must make a solid showing of financial hardship.
Waivers must be filed at least 60 days prior to the deadline using an FCC-issued
form.

Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said the overall goal was to reduce upfront
costs and allow more stations to begin transmitting digital signals.

'It should speed the transition to a digital world, and I know that's what
all of us want,' she said. 'I don't expect we will see a lot of waivers.'

Democratic commissioner Michael Copps said he was pleased that the agency
declined to grant blanket waivers with no showing of hardship.

'That would have been, I think, highly unfair to those who are moving toward
full performance, and it would have been far too lenient on those who are far
less along,' Copps said.

Chairman Michael Powell said he endorsed the plan to 'pump some energy' into
the digital transition. He added that he expects the new rules to save the FCC
from dealing with a flood of waivers. Any waiver, he said, would receive close
scrutiny.

'No one should mistake that the simplification of the process is the
functional equivalent of a light standard. The commission has no intention of
granting a general waiver,' Powell said.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which applauded the FCC's move,
released a survey in August showing that two-thirds of stations polled expected
to meet the May 2002 deadline. But the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 may have made
that poll unreliable.

FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart put TV-station owners on notice that
he would personally recommend yanking a digital-TV license if a waiver
application is devoid of compelling reasons.

'If you don't make a good-faith waiver showing, that may put in play your
permit,' Stewart said, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not for
the four FCC commissioners.

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