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LPTV Gets DTV Green Light

The Federal Communications Commission Wednesday outlined the rules of the road for the digital conversion of analog low-power stations and translators, the latter which rebroadcast station signals to hard-to-reach terrain.

Under the new rules, the low-powers, many of which are community-run, minority-targeted or religious channels, will have most of the same opportunities for ancillary and supplementary services as full-power stations.

So long as the LPTV's provide a free service with some of their digital spectrum, they will also be able to offer multicast on the rest of their spectrum allotment.

The decision affects about 2,100 LPTV's and some 4,700 translators.

Low Powers will be able to "flash cut" immediately to digital service on their existing channel, or apply for a second digital channel to run side-by-side with their analog, as almost all full-powers are doing.

"Flash cut" applications can be made almost immediately, while applications for a second channel will be accepted in two filing windows--the first for incumbents, the second for newcomers. The FCC has yet to set dates for those.

Incumbent filings will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, while all mutually exclusive applications, which are far more likely in the second window, will be settled by auction.

Congress gave full-power broadcasters an exemption from auctions for mutually exclusive licenses to keep the switch from becoming a land-rush fight for the spectrum, but the FCC extended no such exemption for low powers, saying that its reading of the statute gave it no discretion to do so--Congress has ordered the FCC to start auctioning spectrum to help fill the treasury.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps took issue with that reading of the statute.

The FCC plans to carry over any LPTV public service obligations to the digital versions.

For all, that means sponsorship ID requirements and making political time available to candidates. For the 610 Class A stations that were awarded FCC interference protection--essentially a low-power JV squad of stations that met certain criteria--those will include kids programming requirements and commercial time limits, which the FCC has just boosted substantially.