While continuing to protect broadcast TV from harmful interference, the MSTV chief will be taking the initiative in the coming months to make sure that TV stations have the necessary transmission gear in place to make the switch to digital in February 2009.
As president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, David Donovan safeguards TV spectrum from the encroachment of other services that could in any way degrade the pictures and sound that broadcasters now deliver over the air. The job takes on even more urgency in the all-or-nothing world of digital broadcasting.
In this edited interview with TVNewsCheck, Donovan discusses a couple of his current spectrum battles—one with powerful computer industry interests, the other with the operator of a chain of truck stops across the nation.
And, Donovan says, MSTV is doing more than playing defense. In the months ahead, he says, it will unveil initiatives designed to help all TV stations make a smooth technological transition to digital-only broadcasting by the government’s deadline of Feb. 18, 2009.
How are you doing on the DTV transition?
I’m very optimistic about getting the bulk of the industry done by 2009.
It’s true that most stations already have a digital signal up of some kind. But if you look a little closer, you find that many don’t have the right antennas, the right towers, the right transmitters to make the final switch.
There are a number of nuts and bolts issues here. The classic situation is the digital side mount. You’ve got the analog antenna sitting on top of the tower and you’ve got the digital side mounted. At some point, you’ve got to switch them. You’ve got to move the side mount up to the top and get the analog for a while on the side and then ultimately take it down. You’ve got tower crew issues, you’ve got some transmitter upgrades and then there are also some FCC let’s-expedite-the-process issues that need to be taken care of. What I think this cries out for is coordination so MSTV is embarking on an nationwide, all-industry DTV coordination campaign.
Coordination among the stations?
Coordination among the stations for very simple things. I have a tower crew at a station in Albany, New York, and it’s doing work and the crew is then moving to Columbus, Ohio, for the next week and then I’ve got another station in Albany that’s going to get the crew back a month later. Maybe what we can do to try to expedite this process is get all stations in a region or market together, find out what their major problems are and try to do some coordination.
So that you’re using this small number of crews most efficiently.
Exactly. And there are a number of other issues. Who has transmitters? Who doesn’t? One thing that we’re looking into right now, and we’ll be starting up early next year, is a Web site dealing with equipment trades and transfers. Somebody on channel 38 in Boston may have a notched antenna, but he’s going to a different DTV channel. Another station in California is looking for a channel 38 notched antenna. We’re going to get communications going among the stations.
Have you contacted the tower companies yet?
We’re in the process of doing that now. I want to launch this probably sometime in February with regional meetings in various markets throughout the country. I have found over the years that the engineering community works cooperatively despite the fact that they’re fierce competitors.
We can get the engineers together in a room and say, “Okay, we’re all facing the same digital transition at the same time. We all have a vested interest in all of us doing this together at the same time. What can we do to try to make that happen?” It may be that there’s a small station in the market that doesn’t have significant engineering expertise that just needs some questions answered.
Do you feel you also have a role in the consumer education end of this?
I think fundamentally that’s going to be an NAB issue. Well over a year ago, the MSTV board looked at that issue and decided that we needed some form of on-air TV campaign. We’ve been working with the NAB, but I think it will take the lead role in consumer education.
Are there lingering issues at the FCC that have to be ironed out for this thing to go smoothly?
There are some minor things that we need to work on and it’s more process and procedure than anything else. For example, if I’m to go up on my tower and move antennas around, do I want to have to spend a lot of time, months, at the FCC working through the formal modification process? Maybe you can streamline the process as you get nearer to the end of the transition so that stations can just start making these moves as long as they notify the commission.
Congress earmarked $1.5 billion for its digital set-top converter program. Is that going to do it?
I think we’ll probably need a little bit more. If you want to accommodate the 73 million sets out there that are not connected to either cable or satellite, if you want to provide them with a coupon, you’re going to need more. There are budget realities that Congress has to deal with, but I think we’ve always been concerned that that amount was a shade on the low side.
One of the missions of MSTV is safeguarding the TV spectrum. In that regard, you are fighting on at least two fronts right now. One is Clarity Media, which wants to use broadcasters’ ENG spectrum to transmit TV to truckers at truck stops.
Clarity, which is the Flying J truck stop operator, has asked the FCC for an experimental license so that it can sell TV service to truckers in their trucks when they stay overnight at one of its truck stops. They’ll offer the Dish Network and a couple of extra Flying J channels and they’ll transmit it just to the truck stop using our ENG spectrum. They say they’re going to use a down-tilt beam, which is kind of like putting a lamp shade on the transmitter so that all the energy just goes into the truck stop and won’t interfere with anything.
And I guess you’re saying that their lamp shade doesn’t work.
Right. We did some technical work and they did some demonstrations in some markets and said, “Oh, look, there’s no problem.” Well, there is a problem. Problem number one is that this tilt beam that they’re using still sends out energy under the lamp shade and into the community. So I send my ENG truck with the little antenna on it and I aim it back at the receive site. If there is a Flying J. truck stop near the receive site or even anywhere in between the truck and the receive site, you may not get your live shot.
What’s important is that this simply isn’t an issue of interfering with an ENG truck at the truck stop. The interference goes well beyond the truck stop itself. You’re seeing energy from this miles away. Now they say if they interfere they will shut it down, but it’s tough to do in a live news situation, particularly if you’re in emergency situations.
Where does this thing stand right now?
Last summer, we filed a petition for emergency relief because they’re trying to get a CARS license. Now a CARS license is a license issued by the FCC for infrastructure purposes only. You cannot use it for a direct consumer service. They’re using a CARS license on our frequencies.
This a multibillion dollar company. It is not clear at all to me why they couldn’t buy spectrum at auction, use the unlicensed bands, but they have decided to do an experimental service with the ENG spectrum. There are some significant issues here. The key thing is that, right now they have about ten applications that are on file at the FCC and others lined up behind them.
You have been raising the alarm about the white space issue, about computer companies who want the FCC to open up TV spectrum for unlicensed wireless devices. What is your concern exactly?
This thing has been sold to the policy makers as the vehicle for getting broadband out there, but that’s not what’s happening here. Here’s our concern: interference, interference and interference. There are three types of interference. Do you want to operate on a co-channel? The commission seems to be relying very heavily on frequency sensing to prevent interference and there have been no provable demonstrations of this working in the TV band. Second, you can’t operate on adjacent channels. Your TV tuner is designed to have a wide range of acceptance of frequencies and is very sensitive. If you operate on adjacent channels, you’re going to cause interference up to several hundred meters away, through walls, down the street, what have you. The commission is also proposing to use the out-of-band emission limits that it now has under Part 15 and those are inadequate to protect the front end of television sets.
What’s the effect? What’s going to happen if I’m sitting here watching digital TV?
You’ll be sitting there and your picture will suddenly pixelate, freeze and your sound goes out.
During 2006, you opposed the white space measure in the Senate Commerce Committee. What was your problem with that?
What happened was people went up to the Senate and said the FCC wasn’t moving forward and that frankly was just plain wrong, plain wrong. The reason the FCC was moving cautiously is that when it looked at the information it had in the records and when it looked at what IEEE had been doing, there were a number of real problematic issues that hadn’t been resolved.
Right now the issue is at the FCC and if the ultimate goal of that legislation was to get the FCC proceeding moving, I would argue that it achieved its purpose. The FCC is, in fact, moving.
Is this going to happen at the FCC?
I think it’s too early to tell. I think the FCC’s order said yes we would allow these to enter the band after the DTV transition, but what that is and what types of services would be allowed is really is a technical matter that is being debated at the commission.
But the FCC has sort of made a preliminary judgment that they want to make this happen.
If you mean a tentative judgment, yes.
So what do you want from the FCC? Do you want it to reverse itself or do you think that you can work with the FCC to make this thing work technically?
We understand that post transition, that there will be spectrum, especially in rural areas, where spectrum sharing makes sense, but it has to be done in a way that protects the over-the-air digital TV service. You don’t want the American public spending billions of dollars on new digital sets only to find out on February 18th that suddenly things are starting to interfere sporadically with them.
Our preference would be to have a sharing scheme that has a licensed responsible party. The second, if you’re going to do an unlicensed approach, do it very carefully. We support the IEEE process. What does that mean? That means having fixed operations and operating those unlicensed systems outside the station’s contour. That’s the system that’s designed to facilitate and promote rural broadband.
The problem with this issue is that while it is sold as a rural broadband issue, that’s not what Microsoft and Intel and others are pushing. They want to use this spectrum for personal portable devices in large metropolitan areas for in-home networking and other like services. And it is those that raise significant interference issues because the interference issue here has always been how close the device is to your TV receiver, not how far away it is from the transmitter.
It seems to be that one of the problems for broadcasters is that policy makers see broadcasting as yesterday’s technology and tend to favor the new. How do you answer that or how do you deal with that?
Well, I think that there is that perception because your attitudes form around what you know and what America has known for the last fifty years is a one channel, relatively static analog system. What it does not know is what is now on the horizon, what we have been building for the past 10 years. It’s a new digitally based system that is far more flexible and far more dynamic in terms of its ability to change and upgrade with technology; its ability, in the very purest form, to do better HDTV than other services; its ability to dynamically switch between that and multicast; its ability to develop additional compression schemes without losing picture quality; its ability to develop potential new services such as mobile.
What I’m trying to get at is, why should Congress or the FCC be protective of broadcasters to the detriment of others?
We have created a digital terrestrial system that is local and the services that will spin out of that will be dynamic and ever changing. It will be fantastic, but the key is that the system has to be protected. You can’t allow new interfering devices or new spectrum plans that in essence begin to cut away at the ability of local viewers to view that service and I think too often we take over-the-air television for granted.
In the analog world, when you get interference, you get some wavy lines or some sparkles. In digital, it doesn’t work that way. In digital, you either get it or you don’t. So, if you want to have a communication service that is over the air, that is local and that is open, where you can go down the street, buy a box, plug it in and it works. If you want to maintain that system, then you have got to be very, very careful with spectrum and interference issues.