Order Code RS21990
Updated December 10, 2004
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Satellite Television and “Digital White Areas”:
Provisions of the 2004 Satellite Home Viewer
Extension and Reauthorization Act
Specialist in Aerospace and Telecommunications Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
In November 2004, Congress passed the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and
Reauthorization Act (SHVERA), which extends and expands upon earlier Acts that
regulate the satellite television (TV) industry. One of the most contentious issues was
whether to allow satellite TV companies to retransmit broadcast network digital TV
signals to their subscribers who cannot receive digital TV from their local network
broadcast stations — that is, they live in “digital white areas.” SHVERA provides
limited authority for satellite companies to offer “distant digital signals” if certain
conditions are met. This report will not be updated.
Grade B Signals, Unserved Households, and “White Areas”
Congress has passed several laws regulating the satellite television industry. In
those laws, and others that regulate cable television, Congress has attempted to balance
the interests of the broadcast, satellite, and cable television industries, with the goal of
ensuring that as many households as possible have access to free local television
programming, while expanding consumer choices in programming and service providers.
The first satellite TV law was the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act (SHVA). It was
amended in 1994, and expanded in 1999 as the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act
(SHVIA). Some of the provisions of SHVIA were due to expire at the end of 2004,
prompting Congress to revisit satellite TV issues in the 108th Congress. The resulting
Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act (SHVERA) is Title IX of
Division J of the FY2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 4818, P.L. 108-447).
This report addresses only the digital white area issue in SHVERA. See CRS Report
RS21768 for more on the earlier Acts and other SHVERA issues The two major satellite
TV companies are EchoStar (which markets its service as DishTV) and DirecTV.
SHVA allowed satellite companies to retransmit programming from broadcast
network affiliates (such as ABC, NBC, and CBS) only to households that could not
receive good quality signals from their local network affiliate via over-the-air (rooftop or
“rabbit ear”) antennas. Formally they are called “unserved households,” but are
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colloquially known as “white areas.” (The origin of that term is unclear, but some
imagine that it refers to a situation where viewers see only “snow” on their TV screens.)
Satellite TV companies are allowed to provide subscribers who live in unserved
households with network programming from any of the network affiliates regardless of
which television market — or Designated Market Area (DMA)1 — they live in. Since
the signals are from a non-local station, they are referred to as “out-of-market” signals,
or “distant network signals.”
The criterion that determines which households are eligible to receive distant
network signals is the Grade B signal intensity standard set by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC). It is a measurement, in decibels, of the intensity
of the analog signal received at a particular household from a TV station. If a household
cannot receive an analog signal of Grade B intensity, it is an unserved household and is
permitted to receive distant network signals via satellite. Households that can receive a
Grade B signal generally may not receive distant network signals. (Some subscribers
who were receiving distant network signals illegally were “grandfathered” in SHVIA and
allowed to continue receiving them.)
Each TV station has a “Grade B contour” that can be envisioned as a roughly circular
or elliptical area around the transmitter in which most viewers can receive a Grade B
signal. Households outside the Grade B contour are unserved. Also, due to terrain or
building blockages, some households within a Grade B contour also may be unserved.
The FCC uses a computerized predictive model, the Individual Location Longley-Rice
(ILLR), to predict which households can receive a Grade B signal. Consumers who
disagree with the predictive model have recourses (see CRS Report RS20425).
Until recently, the debate over who is allowed to receive distant network signals was
based on analog TV signals. However, the television industry is transitioning to digital
TV (see CRS Report RL31260), raising the question as to whether a similar concept
should be applied to digital TV signals. That is, if a satellite TV subscriber cannot
receive a digital signal from a local broadcast network affiliate — i.e., if they live in a
“digital white area” or are “digitally unserved” — should the subscriber be allowed to
receive a distant digital network signal via satellite?
“Local-into-Local” versus “Distant” Network Signals
SHVA addressed only distant network signals. In 1999, SHVIA allowed satellite
companies, for the first time, to offer local network signals to their subscribers. This
service is referred to as “local-into-local” because the satellite companies take the local
network signal, transmit it to their satellites, and then rebroadcast it back into the same
DMA where it originated. The satellite companies are permitted, but not required, to
offer local-into-local. According to their websites, on November 30, 2004, EchoStar
offered it in160 DMAs, and DirecTV offered it in 130 DMAs.
The distinction between local and distant network signals is important for
understanding satellite TV regulation. A local signal is broadcast and received within a
network affiliate’s DMA. A distant network signal is from elsewhere in the country. For
DMAs are defined by Nielsen Media Research. There are 210 DMAs in the United States.
example, if a consumer lives in Denver and receives a signal from a Denver network
affiliate, that is a local signal. If a consumer lives in West Virginia and receives a signal
from that Denver network affiliate via satellite, it is a distant network signal. This report
addresses the distant network signal debate, but some of the rules apply differently if the
subscriber has access to local-into-local service.
The Debate Over Digital White Areas
Certain provisions of SHVIA were due to expire at the end of 2004, prompting
Congress to again debate satellite TV issues (see CRS Report RS21768). As part of the
debate, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA) proposed
that satellite subscribers who cannot receive digital TV signals from their local network
broadcasters should be able to receive distant digital network TV signals via satellite.
SBCA represents the satellite communications industry, including DirecTV and EchoStar.
SBCA and other groups, such as the Digital Transition Coalition, argued that digital
TV is being rolled out too slowly. They contended that permitting satellite TV companies
to offer distant digital signals — creating in the law “digital white areas” similar to analog
white areas — would spur the TV industry to convert to digital more quickly.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) countered that broadcasters are
converting to digital as quickly as they can, and, in congressional testimony, insisted the
proposal was a “recipe for mischief.” Broadcasters have successfully sued satellite
companies over many years on the basis that the satellite companies provide distant
network signals to subscribers who are not eligible for them. They worry that the satellite
companies may again exceed their authorization, leading to more tension and lawsuits.
The FCC did not publicly take a position on this issue.
Jurisdiction over satellite TV issues is divided between the Commerce and Judiciary
committees. The House passed H.R. 4518 on October 6, 2004. It merged provisions in
that bill as reported from the House Judiciary Committee (H.Rept. 108-66) with H.R.
4501, reported from the House Energy and Commerce Committee (H.Rept. 108-634). The
House-passed bill did not include the requested digital white area provisions. Instead, it
directed the FCC to begin a process that might lead to establishment of a digital signal
standard so that digital white areas could be defined. They would be different from analog
white areas. Analog TV signal strength falls off gradually, creating areas of varying signal
quality, and the signals may reflect off various objects, producing “ghost” images. Digital
signals are either received or not. There are no fuzzy pictures or ghosting.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee reported S. 2644 on
November 19, 2004 (no written report); the Senate Judiciary Committee reported S. 2013
on June 17, 2004 (no written report). Neither bill reached the Senate floor. The Senate
Commerce bill included digital white area provisions; the Senate Judiciary bill did not
address that issue.
A compromise version of SHVERA was included in the FY2005 Consolidated
Appropriations Act (H.R. 4818, P.L. 108-447). The digital white area provisions are very
complex. The final language allowed both sides to declare victory. NAB President Eddie
Fritts said that the bill “thwarts efforts to establish ‘digital white areas’”.2 SBCA’s press
release listed the major features of the bill, including “the creation of a ‘digital white area’
which will allow satellite companies to now deliver digital and ‘high definition’ television
signals to millions of rural Americans who are currently digitally unserved.”3
The details of the final version are described below. Essentially, they mean that
subscribers who are unserved for purposes of analog TV signals will also be considered
unserved for purposes of digital TV signals. Other satellite TV subscribers may receive
distant digital signals only under very narrow circumstances that appear to minimize the
number of eligible households.
Subscribers in Analog White Areas
Subscribers who cannot receive an analog signal of Grade B intensity — i.e., they are
unserved households for analog television — are also considered to be unserved for digital
television. They may receive distant digital signals via satellite if they also meet the
criteria described below regarding their access to local-into-local service.
Subscribers are eligible for distant digital signals if they are determined to be digitally
unserved based on a digital signal intensity test. There are specific provisions about when
subscribers are eligible for the test, how it must be conducted, and who pays for it.
When a Test May Be Requested (“Trigger Events”)
If the subscriber is within the analog Grade B contour of a network station and is
seeking to get a distant digital signal from the same network, the subscriber is not eligible
for a test until the following “trigger events” occur:
April 30, 2006, if the local network station is within the top 100 television
— has received a tentative digital TV service channel designation that is
the same as that station’s current digital TV service channel, or
— has been found by the FCC to have lost interference protection, or
July 15, 2007, for any other local network stations, other than translator stations
(which amplify and simultaneously rebroadcast the signal of a TV station on a
different frequency), or
Statement of NAB President and CEO Edward O. Fritts on Passage of the Five-Year Satellite
Home Viewer Extension Reauthorization Act. Press release, November 22, 2004.
SBCA Applauds Congress for Reauthorizing the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act.
Press release, November 20, 2004. [http://www.sbca.com/press/112004.htm]
in the case of a translator station, one year after the date on which the FCC
completes all actions necessary for the allocation and assignment of digital TV
licenses to TV translator stations.
The FCC may grant a waiver to a network station and prohibit subscribers from
receiving the testing. The request from the station for a waiver must be filed no
less than five months before the implementation deadlines specified in the
clauses above. The waiver shall expire at the end of no more than six months,
but may be renewed. The FCC may only grant the waivers upon clear and
convincing evidence that the station’s digital signal coverage is limited due to
the unremediable presence of one or more of the following (and under no
circumstance can waivers be granted because of financial exigency):
— the need for international coordination or approvals,
— clear zoning or environmental legal impediments,
— force majeure,
— the station experiences a substantial decrease in its digital signal area
due to necessity of using side-mounted antennae,
— substantial technical problems that result in a station experiencing a
substantial decrease in its coverage area solely due to actions to avoid
interference with emergency response providers, or
— no satellite carrier is providing local-into-local analog service in the
The FCC may grant waivers to translator stations for not more than three years
if it determines that the translator station is not broadcasting a digital signal due
to one or more of the following:
— frequent occurrence of inclement weather, or
— mountainous terrain at the transmitter tower location.
The test must be conducted in accordance with FCC regulation 73.686(d) of title 47
CFR [regarding how to collect field strength data] or any successor regulation, and
the subscriber cannot receive a signal of the standard set in section 73.622(e) of title
47 CFR [regarding digital TV service areas, measured in decibels above 1 microvolt
per meter] as in effect on the date of enactment of this act. (SHVERA also requires
the FCC to complete a study within one year of enactment to determine if these are
the best methods for determining whether a household is digitally unserved, and
report to Congress with appropriate recommendations.)
The subscriber must make a written request to the satellite company for a test. The
test must be conducted within 30 days after the subscriber submits the request.
The test must be conducted by a qualified and independent person selected by the
satellite company and the network station(s), or who has been previously approved
by the satellite carrier and each affected station but not previously disapproved (but
the tester cannot be disapproved after the test has commenced).
Circumstances Under Which the Loser Pays, or the Subscriber Pays, for the Test
In the case of subscribers who are not eligible for a distant digital signal because they
do not receive an analog signal of Grade B intensity, but are inside a network
station’s Grade B contour, the satellite company may ask the network station for a
waiver. If the station grants a waiver, or fails to respond within 30 days, the
subscriber may receive the distant digital signal. If a waiver is denied, the subscriber
may request the satellite carrier to conduct the test. Unless the satellite company and
network station otherwise agree, the loser pays for the test — if the test shows that
the subscriber is not digitally unserved, the satellite company pays for test; if the test
shows that the subscriber is digitally unserved, then the network station pays.
If the satellite company does not request the test, or fails to respond to the subscriber
within 30 days, the subscriber may request a test and pay for it himself or herself in
accordance with regulations to be prescribed by the FCC. The satellite company
must inform the subscriber of the typical costs of the test.
All Subscribers Who Can Receive Local-into-Local Service
Any eligible subscriber who is a lawful subscriber to a distant digital signal on the
date of enactment of SHVERA may continue to receive that distant digital signal whether
or not the subscriber subscribes to local-into-local.
Other subscribers who are digitally unserved, but can receive analog local-into-local
signals, must choose between the local-into-local signals, or distant digital signals, if –
in the 48 contiguous states, the distant digital signal is the secondary transmission of
a station whose prime time network programming is generally broadcast
simultaneously with, or later than, the prime time network programming of the local
affiliate of that network,
in any local market, the retransmission of the distant digital signal of the distant
station occupies at least the equivalent bandwidth as the digital signal broadcast by
such stations, and
the subscriber subscribes to the analog signal of a local network station within 60
days after that station’s analog signal is made available by the satellite company, and
adds to or replaces the station’s analog signal with its digital signal within 60 days
after that digital signal is made available by the satellite carrier. However, the distant
digital signal can be continued if the subscriber cannot be reached by the satellite
transmission of the local digital signal.
New subscribers who are digitally unserved but can receive digital local-into-local
service, may not get distant digital signals via satellite unless they cannot be reached by
the satellite transmission of the local digital signal.
New subscribers who are digitally unserved and cannot receive digital local-into-local
may receive a distant digital signal from a station affiliated with a particular network. But
they can only do so if, in the case of local markets in the 48 contiguous states, the distant
network affiliate’s prime time network programming is generally broadcast simultaneously
with, or later than, the prime time network programming of the local affiliate. The satellite
company may continue to provide the distant digital signal after it makes a digital localinto-local signal available only if the subscriber subscribes to the digital signal from the
local network station (unless the subscriber cannot be reached by the satellite transmission
of the local digital signal).
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