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Use it or lose it

As if they didn't have enough to think about with the transition to digital, some terrestrial UHF analog stations must maximize power levels by May or risk losing the opportunity to do so. Failing to maximize would greatly limit their future digital coverage.

To date, according to the FCC, more than 400 UHF stations have filed for permission to increase the power level originally allotted to them. Many are unaware of the deadline, says George DeVault, president and general manager at WKPT-DT Kingsport, Tenn. Most, he points out, believe that their right to build at their maximized power levels is guaranteed until 2004.

The issue is of particular concern to UHF stations with limited budgets that are spending lots of money to develop digital transmission facilities. If forced to maximize, they'll have to pay the extra electrical cost beginning in May, with electric bills totaling $10,000 a month or more.

The FCC's Table of Channel Allotments for DTV approved in December 1998 prescribed various power levels at which stations can operate their transmitters without interfering with others. These levels were designed to help digital stations replicate their NTSC service.

Since VHF analog stations typically have substantially larger predicted coverage than their analog UHF competitors, analog stations operating on a VHF channel and assigned a UHF channel for digital operation were typically allotted about 1 MW of radiated power.

However, most major-market VHF stations currently on the air with a digital signal are not operating at full power and probably won't be by May, because of the low penetration of consumer DTV sets. The FCC, therefore, has said it will protect all stations at their originally allotted power levels until the end of 2004.

Unfortunately for UHF analog stations allotted digital UHF channels, being protected at the level allotted in the 1998 table means having to operate at substantially lower power than that specified in their "maximization" applications and construction permits (CP). In many cases, it's as low as 40,000 W.

WKPT-DT, a UHF digital station, has been allotted 54,300 W. The station, currently on the air with an interim digital signal at 5,400 W, will increase power to 25,000 to 50,000 W in the coming months and plans to be at its maximized level of 200,000 W by the end of 2004.

In their market, VHF stations WCYB-TV Bristol, Va., and WJHL-TV Johnston City, Tenn., have been allotted 1 MW for their UHF digital operations. WCYB-TV is currently running 129,000 W; WJHL-TV plans to be on the air this fall.

Neither of these analog VHF stations has to be concerned about losing its right to go to UHF digital power levels at the million-watt level because they were originally allotted those levels and are protected through 2004—whether they build out to full power by then or not.

WKPT-DT hired a consultant and found that it could operate at 200,000 W without interfering, according to DeVault, a member of the NAB board. The station filed for and received a CP to run at 200,000 W, instead of the allotted 54,300 W.

The problem is that, under the FCC's current maximization policy, WKPT-DT has to be operating at the approved 200,000 W level by May or it will be protected only for the originally allotted 54,300 W. Says DeVault, "We, and several hundred other stations that have been disadvantaged all these years, suddenly find that we have to build to our maximized power levels by next May or lose the right to do so."

Berl Brechner, co-owner at WMDT-TV Salisbury, Md., faces the same concerns. His digital station was originally allotted 63,000 W but, after applying for a higher power level, received a CP in May to operate on ch. 53 at a radiated power of 250,000 W.

"Stations that are already allocated a higher signal don't have to build out as quickly as those that have had to work hard and spend money to get a maximized signal," Brechner says. "It's not fair." He adds that maximization has been used by some analog UHF stations as a way to improve their service in digital.

Stations can seek an extended time to construct their facility by citing "unforeseen circumstances or circumstances beyond their control," says John Morgan, assistant chief of the FCC's Video Services division. Financial hardship, however, does not qualify for an extension at this time. The NAB is lobbying the commission to change this situation.

Philip J. Lombardo, president of Bronxville, N.Y.-based Citadel Communications and also a member of NAB's board, predicts that the FCC will "be practical" and protect all maximized power levels through 2004. An owner of four full-power VHF stations and one UHF, all in the Midwest, he notes, "Reality has got to set in. Especially in the current economic time, it's difficult for medium- and small-market stations to move forward on a rapid timetable."

Lombardo understands the hardship to UHF stations trying to get on the air incrementally. By May, they will have to invest $2.5 million to $3 million to go to maximum power, he says, while neglecting other parts of their digital operation. "Right now, it's all cash out and no revenue coming back."