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Powell: Digital rules not limp

FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his colleagues bent over backwards last
week to assure a wary Capitol Hill that an easier process for delaying TV
stations' digital rollouts won't be too easy.

"No one should mistake - the simplification of process is the not functional equivalent of a light standard," Powell said after the FCC approved a new standard waiver form aimed at easing the hurdles as stations' May's DTV rollout deadline nears.

Anticipating the FCC would be flooded with waiver
requests from stations seeking delays, broadcasters lobbied for a streamlined
request form.

All stations - except major network O&Os and affiliates in top 30
markets, which must offer DTV already - can use the new waiver.

Delays can last up to one year when economic hardships prevent stations from obtaining financing and when zoning disputes and equipment delays impede construction of DTV facilities.

Powell's tough words seemed tailored to convince House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin and ranking Democrat John Dingell, who insisted in a Nov. 6 letter to Powell that an "overly broad" standard would "stop the transition in its tracks" by allowing almost every station to win a delay.

Powell countered at the FCC's Nov. 8 meeting that he expects demand for waivers to be lower than once feared because the FCC took other steps to cut costs of DTV rollouts.

On Thursday, the FCC decided to give stations more time to duplicate analog coverage areas with digital footprints and for 'using or losing' the right to broadcast DTV signals at their maximum legal range.

Related to the digital transition, Tauzin and Dingell also cautioned Powell not to expend the reach of a recent FCC ruling allowing stations on channels 60-69 that relinquish one of their two channels early to delay their 2002 DTV rollouts for at least three years.

Giving similar leeway to stations on channel 52-59, due to be auctioned in 2002 with other outlets on the higher part of TV spectrum, would be "unacceptable," they said.
- Bill McConnell