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Turnkey or turkey?

Lower-power equipment and lenient FCC rules offer a relatively inexpensive option for launching digital service, but owners should evaluate very carefully whether turnkey systems offered by several manufacturers are the right solution for their TV stations, according to one broadcast attorney.

"It's a mistake to believe that low-power equipment is a panacea for getting on the air," Washington broadcast attorney Tom Van Wazer said on an NAB panel last week.

Many broadcasters are certainly looking for a solution to their DTV woes. A conventional digital facility costs roughly $3 million, a frightening price tag for small-market broadcasters, particularly when almost none of their viewers own sets that can receive DTV.

High cost is behind perhaps half of the 800-plus requests stations filed with the FCC to delay their May 1 digital launch deadline.

The FCC already offered some help last fall, when it said that, initially, stations need reach only their city of license with DTV, instead of replicating their analog coverage areas. So, manufacturers are offering DTV transmission systems priced as low as $50,000 for as little as 1 kW.

Although low-powered turnkey systems allow stations to comply with FCC rules, that's about all they offer, Van Wazer said. "These facilities will not give you the ability to get reliable signals into viewers' houses."

Wazer, who represents small broadcast groups, warned that signals often suffer coverage gaps even in the smaller service area permitted by the FCC's city-of-license rule.

Ultimately, he predicted, stations will save little money because the systems must be junked or relegated to backup roles.

But George DeVault, president of Holston Valley Broadcasting, which owns WKPT-TV Kingsport, Tenn., was more upbeat on the prospects for his station's low-powered system.

The $124,000 system now offers two standard-definition digital signals available at 54 kW to 440,000 people, or 82% of area residents. Reaching the 94,000 residents in the mostly mountainous rest of the area would require a 200-kW transmitter, he said.

He conceded that reception would be spotty for viewers relying on indoor antennas but said early adopters who have DTV sets don't mind attaching the rooftop antenna necessary with the weaker-powered transmitters. "A big signal isn't needed right now."