FCC Amends Predictive Model for Measuring "Grade B" Signal Strength
The FCC has modified its existing rules for predicting the “Grade B” signal strength of local over-the-air television networks at individual households. The predictive model’s estimation of signal strength is used to determine whether a household is eligible to receive distant network signals by satellite. Only those households that receive a local network signal off-air of less than Grade B signal strength (as predicted under the model or by an actual measurement at the location) are eligible to receive satellite-delivered distant network programming under the copyright laws. The Commission had been directed by Congress to update its rules on measuring and predicting Grade B signal strengths to more accurately predict whether households that have been denied access to satellite-delivered distant networks actually receive good off-air signals. Simultaneously, the Commission is starting a separate proceeding to determine if the Grade B standard should itself be modified or replaced.
Disputes over signal strength measurements and eligibility for receiving satellite-delivered distant network signals have been the subject of litigation for the past three years and were also the subject of legislation in 1999. Two 1998 copyright orders entered against PrimeTime 24 (see our advisory of July 15 1998) enjoined PrimeTime 24 (and ultimately DirecTV) from distributing distant networks to satellite dish owners based on evidence of widespread sales to homes that were inside the Grade B contours of local network affiliates. In a political compromise, the broadcasters and PrimeTime 24 agreed to delay the effective date until February, 1999 (after the November elections). In the meantime, the FCC commenced a rulemaking to consider express amendments to the “Grade B” signal strength intensities and measurement procedure to promote the competitive viability of DBS against cable.
In 1999, following the lead of the court that entered the orders against PrimeTime 24, the Commission adopted a predictive signal measurement standard known as “Individual Location Longley-Rice” or “ILLR” to predict whether individual subscribers, based on street address, should receive a sufficiently strong signal from a local network broadcast station, thus making that household ineligible to receive a distant network station by satellite. (See our advisory dated Jan. 7, 1999). Although the ILLR system was widely deployed, many disputes still arose, and in the legislation amending and extending the satellite compulsory copyright license (the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act – see our advisory dated Dec. 7, 1999) Congress directed the FCC to develop and prescribe a predictive model for reliably and presumptively determining the ability of individual locations to receive signals sufficiently strong for viewing network stations off-air. The Commission was directed to rely on the ILLR model previously adopted, but to also take into account “terrain, building structures, and other land cover variations,” and to establish procedures for the continued refinement of the ILLR model as additional data becomes available.
In its orders released this week, the Commission determined to continue using the ILLR model with certain modifications and also issued a Notice of Inquiry to determine if the Grade B signal strength standard should be modified or replaced. To increase the reliability of the predictive process, the Commission assigned “clutter loss values” that are numerical modifications to the signal strength standard reflecting a reduction in available signal intensity associated with particular categories of land, ranging from open land to urban environments. Because there were few or no observed changes in the VHF band, the clutter loss values were set to zero for VHF, and only small clutter loss values were assigned for UHF channels. Other technical matters (concerning surface refractivity, ghosting and urban noise) were not incorporated in the ILLR model. The Commission indicated that it will only initiate a further rulemaking upon petition based on reliable engineering studies and publicly available measurement data.
Because the rules also provide for challenges to the predictive model by employing actual measurements at individual locations, the FCC also designated a “neutral” entity for signal test purposes in those situations where a satellite provider and network station do not agree on who can conduct a test. The American Radio Relay League offered to serve and was designated by the FCC to be the fall-back testing entity.
To further comply with Congressional directive, the Commission also issued a Notice of Inquiry to determine whether the signal intensity standard (Grade B) itself should be modified or replaced. The FCC is seeking comment on whether the signal strength values should be changed or modified, and whether signal quality issues (including receiver noise, signal-to-noise ratios, and the like) can or should be addressed. Comments are due June 27 and replies are due July 12.
If you have any questions or would like copies of the FCC’s Orders or Notice of Inquiry, please contact John Seiver.