Digital TV Transition: It’s Not Over Yet

On June 19, 2009, all major terrestrial television broadcasters were required to switch from analog to digital transmissions (though many had already made the switch by that point). People scrambled to get their rebate coupons from the FCC for digital conversion boxes, and there was more than a bit of grumbling when people discovered that they no longer could get a signal strong enough to show a picture. (Cable and satellite companies were more than happy to sign them up for a subscription, however.) Fortunately, all that is in the rear-view mirror as we all merrily cruise down the highway of digital television.

Not so fast. The fact is that there are still thousands of television stations in this country still broadcasting analog signals. These are low-power stations and repeater stations that are used in rural areas to relay signals into sparsely-populated areas. But the FCC has finally turned its attention to these, and last week, it adopted a “Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Memorandum Opinion and Order” that — among other things — establishes the summer of 2012 as the deadline for these low-power stations to convert to digital transmissions.

How big a problem can this be? According to the FCC document, there are more than 7,500 of these low power stations. Only a bit more than half of them have made the switch to digital broadcasts, which still leaves more than 3,000 stations that still need to make the transition. Why bother? It’s the same problem as with the full-power stations, except on a smaller scale. Digital transmissions require less radio spectrum, so it frees up frequencies for other applications. In part, this will allow emergency services such as police, fire, and ambulance services to upgrade their communications systems. The issue has taken on additional importance with the National Broadband Plan which will calls for the use of part of the radio spectrum for wireless broadband services.

The FCC is taking comments for 60 days after the document is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments for an additional 30 days after that.