Television translators are broadcast devices that receive a transmitted signal from over the air, automatically convert the frequency, and re-transmit the signal on a separate channel. Closely related are TV boosters, that amplify the incoming channel and re-transmit it, but without translating from one frequency to another.

In the United States, television stations originally were assigned to specific channels and communities, in a pattern designed to distribute service as widely as possible to all communities. The distribution plan adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1952 utilized a highly simplified model of physical terrain, and predicted desired coverage in a fairly smooth radius outward from the transmitter location. In reality, an obstacle such as a 9,000 foot peak would completely block any reception.

TV boosters began as a practical self-help solution to this problem wherever the terrain was mountainous, but especially in the inter-mountain West from the Front Range of the Rockies to the Cascades and through the Sierra and Coastal ranges of California. Typically, a local TV repairman or appliance salesman offering the latest in console TV sets would install a sensitive receiver on the other side of the ridge, bring the signal to the near side, and boost the signal on channel from high above the community into the valley floor.

The first booster probably was built by Ed Parsons in 1948, to extend the reach of his cable system in Astoria, Oregon. Other boosters in the Pacific Northwest soon followed. In 1954, an FCC inspector went out to Bridgeport, Washington, and ordered the local booster shut down, because it was operating without a license. It soon was returned to extra-legal operation, under the auspices of the Bridgeport Junior Chamber of Commerce. The FCC issued a cease and desist order, and on appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit refused to enforce the order, holding that the FCC had a statutory duty to make provision for the use of broadcast channels, and had been remiss in not devising a means for boosters to be licensed (C. J. Community Services v. FCC. D.C. Cir., 1957).

In Colorado, Governor Ed Johnson began issuing state "licenses," appointing the local operators to his communication "staff," and ordering them to continue their efforts to boost television signals on channel. By 1956, there already were some 800 unlicensed boosters and translators known to be in operation. The first stirrings of cable television, or community antenna television, as it was then known, were in the same interval after 1948. As an alternate delivery mechanism, cable was the natural competitor of boosters and translators. Where cable gained initial inroads, as in Pennsylvania, it had the advantage that each home user was connected and could be charged a monthly fee. The boosters were typically supported by donations, and were a broadcast service with no toll-keeper. As cable took its initial steps as a fledgling industry, it sought protection from the FCC, urging that translators and boosters be restricted or outlawed.

Because of this early rivalry, and especially because the FCC was wedded to its pre-conceived plan for the orderly development of television in accord with the assignments it issued, the FCC refused to approve boosters and authorized translators in 1956, only to the virgin territory of UHF Channels 10-83. Power was limited to 10 watts. The rural residents essentially ignored this action, and continued to offer VHF service on Channels 2 through 13, increasingly moving away from the primitive booster, in favor of cleaner translator technology.

In 1958 the FCC announced that it was stepping up enforcement efforts, intending to get the extra-legals off the air in 90 days. Congress was deluged with protests of this action, and the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce conducted field hearings during 1959 in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. In July 1960 Congress amended the Communications Act to waive operator requirements and otherwise authorize booster and translator operations, including those already on the air. Three weeks later, the FCC authorized VHF translators for the first time.

Translators continue to be an important component of rural TV delivery, especially in the West. As of 31 December 1995 the FCC reported 4,844 licensed translators, slightly over one-half operating on UHF. All of these re-broadcast a primary TV station. In 1982, the FCC made provision for them to originate their own programs, as low power television stations, and an additional 1,787 LPTV's have been licensed.

-Michael Couzens


Cox, Kenneth A. "The Problem of Television Service for Smaller Communities." Staff Report to the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Washington, D.C: 26 December 1958.

Federal Communications Commission. Report And Recommendations In The Low Power Television Inquiry (BC Docket No. 78-153), 9 September 1980.

U. S. Senate, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Report to Accompany Senate 1886. 86th Congress, 1st Session. Washington, D.C.: 4 September 1959.


See also Low Power Television; United States: Cable Television