Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission has tentatively determined that slightly more than one-third of all U.S. television markets can't receive emergency TV broadcasts in analog after the national switch to all-digital broadcasting in mid-February.
In a Dec. 24 notice, the FCC said that due to potential signal interference and statutory limitations set by Congress, 74 markets, or 35%, did not immediately qualify to provide even one full-power analog TV station for a stopgap program recently enacted into law.
The U.S. is switching to all-digital TV on Feb. 17. The country is divided into 210 TV markets, New York City being the largest and Glendive, Mont., the smallest.
Concerned for those who could not or did not prepare for the switch to over-the-air digital TV, Congress passed a law two weeks ago allowing analog broadcasting to keep going for just 30 additional days -- but only to provide emergency information and tips on how to ready analog TVs for digital reception.
The FCC has until Jan. 15 to design the analog "nightlight" program. TV station participation is, however, strictly voluntary.
"We strongly encourage all eligible stations to participate in the provision of a nightlight service to assist consumers during the 30-day period following the digital transition," the FCC said.
In the notice, the FCC concluded that many markets couldn't participate because ongoing analog service could disrupt digital signals on adjacent channels in the same market or on identical channels in adjacent markets. Another problem: Congress banned the FCC from allowing analog nightlight service in channels 52-69, about a quarter of all spectrum used by analog TV stations today.
The agency said that because it was being "conservative" regarding signal interference, it was inviting stations that wanted to participate to "submit engineering and other information" to demonstrate they wouldn't disrupt digital TV signals during the 30-day program.
"I strongly encourage stations in markets without such pre-approved stations to seriously consider participating in this program as a public service to your viewing community," FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein said in a statement. "Each station participating in this `analog nightlight' program will effectively serve as `lifeline' to households that have delayed in transitioning."
Markets that didn't make the FCC's initial eligibility list included several state capitals, such as Austin, Texas; Albany, N.Y.; and Tallahassee, Fla. Coastal markets prone to bad weather, such as Portland, Me., and Biloxi, Miss., didn't make the list, either.
In West Virginia -- the home state of Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D), sponsor of the Senate nightlight bill -- two of four TV markets didn't make the FCC's list.
The FCC's nightlight program ends a second before midnight on March 19. Eligible markets are located in 46 states, in addition to Washington, D.C. The agency's notice didn't include the number of TV households within the 74 markets not currently eligible to participate.
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