appears that the FCC is in the final stages of resolution of the long-running
battle of LPFM vs. translators. According to the Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth
August 2012 blog, the Office of Management and Budget has now approved the
proposals as outlined in the Fourth Report and Order published in March 2012.
The guidelines of that Order allow the FCC to award as many of the backlogged
translators licenses as possible, within limits that leave spectrum available
for Low-Power FM licenses in the top 150 markets.
commission inadvertently began the conflict in 2003 when they opened up a
window for translator licenses without setting any public policy limits on
applications. No technical requirements were in place to even determine if an
application could legitimately be built. It was the heyday of anti-regulatory
fervor applied to an industry that had been intensely regulated since its
inception, and the crowd went wild. With plenty of advance warning, applicants
prepared a flood of applications for every conceivable geographic corner and
population center. Why not, if the government was giving away licenses for the
FM band, then at the peak of equity-fueled valuation?
entity, whether or not a broadcaster, was allowed to file for translators. This
invited outside speculators to put in barely literate applications with the
hope of selling any properties thus obtained back to broadcasters at a profit.
It also fostered a vision of national radio networks via a phalanx of
translators, satellite fed.
When more than 13,000 translator
applications (some entities filed several thousand each) landed in the FCC’s
inbox, it was apparent that the whole process had been a mistake. Broadcasters
who had applied for translators for traditional signal enhancement purposes
found themselves swarmed with mutually exclusive applications, including
multiple applications from one entity that were themselves mutually exclusive.
But most importantly, everyone knew that some kind of line had been crossed in
terms of spectrum. If all the applications had been allowed to proceed, this
window marked the end of any available spectrum for future Low-Power FM or
translator services where any population existed to be served. That was it —
the whole enchilada would have been given away.
on complaints, the FCC froze 6,500 or so of the translator applications and
settled down to the task of trying to come up with a reasonable fix. In the
end, it took some help from Congress and nine years to get where we are today.
Both sides will get some of what they want.
that filed in the 2003 window will be allowed to keep up to 50 of their
applications, but the rest must be withdrawn. The freeze will be removed
allowing applications to proceed immediately. However, there’s still a catch.
FCC spent years looking at the various broadcast markets and evaluating
potential channels for LPFM stations. Each market was broken into fine grids
for analysis. Locating new LPFM opportunities was assisted by the
congressionally mandated relaxation of rules on spacing of third-adjacent
stations. LPFM will be given at least this level of preference or protection:
If a market only has room for LPFM or a translator, all translator applications
in that market will be dismissed.
the measure of the wisdom of a compromise is the degree to which it is disliked
by both parties, then the FCC has been wise in its deliberations. Certainly
hundreds, if not thousands, of new translators will be authorized in the near
future as the freeze is lifted. Many AM stations may be in the market for one
of these new licenses to supplement their coverage at night. We can expect that
soon after this backlog has been processed that a new window for LPFMs will
open, which has been a Congressional goal for many years. But even with the
relaxed interference rules, only a relatively small number of channels remain
with visions of national networks are also unhappy; but at least to this
observer, the idea of using a class of stations designed to augment local
services and fill in coverage gaps was a poorly conceived goal at best. The
Telecommunications Act of 1996 essentially deregulated ownership limits on
radio licenses. Those looking to build national networks can do so without
having to resort to secondary channels a few watts at a time. Certainly, giving
away such a valuable quantity of spectrum to one or two players was never the
goal of the FCC when it opened the flood gates in 2003.
IS THIS THE END OF AN ERA?
in the opening section of the Fourth Report and Order, the FCC notes that the
clearing of the 2003 translator window followed by a subsequent LPFM window are
likely to be virtually the last of their kind. “We have determined, based on
these studies, that the next LPFM window presents a critical, and indeed
possibly a last, opportunity to nurture and promote a community radio service
that can respond to unmet listener needs and underserved communities in many
urban areas” [from paragraph 2 of the introduction]. As is generally true with
most occasions when the FCC gets stuck on an issue, the outcome represents a
watershed moment. We appear to be reaching the limit for FM with regards to
creating new stations in areas with actual population.
of which begs the question: Will the FCC ever agree to add more spectrum to the
FM band in the face of what continues to be an overwhelming demand? The TV 6
band would make a nice addition to a service that continues to grow and is
ready to take on even more.
Michael LeClair is chief
engineer for radio stations WBUR(AM/FM) in Boston; he has been technical editor
of Radio World Engineering Extra since its inception in 2005.