Stage set for new stations

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Federal Communications Commission has cleared the way for the potential creation of hundreds of new TV stations whose owners won’t face the same regulatory restrictions as existing broadcasters.
In addition, the new stations would be able to use whatever technology they want to get their signals to consumers, including COFDM-a digital TV transmission technology that some broadcasters argue is more versatile than the 8VSB system that FCC regulations require them to use exclusively.
Among other things, proponents argue that COFDM is superior to 8VSB when it comes to sending signals to mobile receivers-something broadcasters would have to do if they want to use some of their digital spectrum to offer competitive data services.
“It’s almost laughable,” said Mark Hyman, VP, corporate relations, for Sinclair Broadcast Group. “It’s going to let new broadcasters in, and they’ll be able to offer new services we cannot.”
The authorization for the new stations was included in the fine print of a voluminous recent FCC order explaining what winning bidders in the upcoming auctions for the rights to TV channels 52 to 59 can do.
Under a law approved by Congress in 1997, the agency is supposed to clear existing broadcasters from that band after the transition to digital TV is complete. But the actual auction of the rights to the channels is currently scheduled for June.
The FCC has long made clear that it wanted to free the winning bidders to use the channels pretty much as they pleased-and that laissez-faire approach is expected to increase the pool of spectrum bidders.
However, it was only in the auction order, released late last month, that the FCC spelled out that the channels, which were generally expected to be gobbled up by huge phone companies to expand cellular radio offerings, could also be used for a new generation of TV stations using COFDM.
“You can operate anything you want in there, any way you want,” said Alan Stillwell, the FCC’s expert on the new initiative.
Added cause for broadcaster angst may be that the new bandwidth would be sufficient to launch up to eight new TV channels, each 6 MHz wide, virtually everywhere.
But a silver lining for broadcasters, Mr. Stillwell said, may be that broadcasters are free to bid for the new channels, assuming they’ve got deep enough pockets to do so.
In addition, Mr. Stillwell said that just because broadcasters can use COFDM on the new channels, there’s no assurance it will be used, because TV sets built to the 8VSB standard would have to be modified, perhaps with a set-top box, to receive COFDM.
“If you really believe it’s a better service and you want to do it, here’s the place,” Mr. Stillwell said.
Mr. Stillwell also said there’s no big secret why the FCC restricted existing broadcasters to 8VSB-only transmissions. “The answer is that the industry [most broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers] wanted it that way,” he said.
According to one well-placed source, consumer electronics manufacturers are concerned that the new transmission flexibility could undermine the monopoly position of 8VSB, a technology patented by Zenith Electronics.
But some sources see broadcast use of the spectrum as remote at best, because wireless radio interests are expected to raise the bids for the channels to astronomical levels that broadcasters can’t hope to beat and because President Bush recently proposed to postpone the auctions themselves until 2006.
“At the moment, it’s no concern for me because of the timing and the dollars,” said Wayne Luplow, Zenith VP of HDTV and standards.
Said Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Mr. Hyman, “As an industry, we laughed at the cable threat 25 years ago. Ten years ago, we dismissed satellite, and now we are faced with a new service that can do everything we can do-and more-on our old analog channels, and we’re asleep at the wheel.”