FCC Issues Proposed 'DTV Nightlight' Guidelines

The FCC wasted no time releasing its proposed guidelines for a new analog-DTV nightlight bill, but suggested that, at least initially, stations in only about two-thirds of U.S. markets will be able to keep their analog nightlights burning.

The day after the president signed the SAFER bill into law Dec. 23, the FCC called on broadcasters to try to make sure that at least one station in each market keeps its analog signal going for 30 days past the Feb. 17 analog cut-off date in order to provide emergency and DTV education information.

That sounds like a tall order, since the FCC also said that it had identified stations in only 136 out of the 210 markets where a nightlight service would not interfere with digital signals or otherwise not be able to provide a signal. But the FCC also said that was a conservative estimate of the necessary separation between channels. The commission also said it would look for other ways stations could provide the nightlight service in those markets, including encouraging a low power station that was not making the transition to digital to transmit the information (low-power stations are not required to switch to digital on Feb. 17).

Congress has given the FCC until Jan. 15 to come out with its plan for the extended analog service, which requires a blanket waiver of its rules. So, the commission released its proposal on Christmas Eve—it had been working on it in anticipation of the bill's passage—and has established an abbreviated comment period (eight days) for interested parties to weigh in.

The FCC said that despite all efforts to educate viewers, "it is inevitable that on February 17, 2009, some consumers will be unaware of the transition, some will be unprepared to receive digital signals, and others will experience unexpected technical difficulties."

The FCC says that programming will be confined to emergency information and DTV education and include no advertising. Channels to be used for the analog nightlight service will be confined to 2-51 to avoid public safety spectrum and spectrum being reclaimed for advanced wireless services.

In addition, stations flash cutting from analog to digital—meaning they are using the same channel for both—won't be able to keep the nightlight on because by definition they would be interfering with a DTV signal, which the nightlight service is not allowed, by law, to do.

The FCC also invited stations that had not met the cut-off but wanted to keep the service on to demonstrate how they might be able to without creating undue interference to digital signals. But the commission said it would accept .1% of new interference to a digital station or perhaps as much .5% in areas where there was no eligible nightlight station or one that could stay within the .1% new-interference threshold.

The FCC released a list of the stations it considered pre-approved.

In addition to DTV education information, allowable emergency information that can be carried on the analog signal is defined as: "tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earth quakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, civil disorders, school closings and changes in school bus schedules resulting from such conditions, and warning and watches of impending changes in weather."

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who may have to deal with the program from a bigger chair if he is named acting FCC chairman after the change in administrations Jan. 20, was less than satisfied with the proposal, saying it "lacks the thoroughness" he believed Congress expected.

"I am particularly disappointed that little engineering work seems to have been done to maximize the number of stations that can participate in the program," Copps wrote in a statement. "Instead, the Notice applies a distance separation standard that protects against interference by requiring that Analog Nightlight stations be 164 miles or more from DTV stations operating on the same channel. The item acknowledges that this approach is 'conservative' and likely over-protects digital signals from interference. In other words, it is a blunt instrument that contains fewer Analog Nightlight stations than can and should be accommodated."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.