Translate This! FCC Breaks LPFM/FM Translator Logjam

Complex process aims to preserve LPFM opportunities while allowing grants of some long-pending translator apps

In 2003 the Commission opened its doors to new FM translator applicants – and more than 13,000 applications walked in. Now, nearly a decade later, some 6,500 of those applications are still pending. But never fear. With some Congressional prodding (in the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA)), the FCC has knuckled down and devised a complex system for processing the remaining translator applications while assuring that translators will not gobble up all the available spectrum to the exclusion of new low power FM (LPFM) applicants. That system, first proposed last summer, has now been officially adopted in a Fourth Report and Order and Third Order on Reconsideration (4th R&O).

Congress insisted in the LCRA that the LPFM service be treated as “equal in status” to FM translators and boosters. Congress was less clear as to what, precisely, it meant by the phrase “equal in status”. Sorting that out was left to the Commission. The first 14 or so pages of the 4th R&O are devoted to identifying the “broad interpretive principles” underlying the LCRA. Feel free to read through them if you’re interested. For our money, your time would be better spent on pages14-25, particularly starting on page 19. That’s where the Commission explains its “revised translator application processing and dismissal policies” – i.e., how it’s going to cull grantable translator applications without shutting out LPFM wannabes.

It’s not necessarily pretty, and it certainly isn’t easy, but the Commission’s system seems to do the trick, preserving theoretical opportunities for future LPFMs while still allowing relatively prompt grant of more than 1,000 (by the Commission’s estimate) new translators from the applications filed in 2003.

If you’ve got one or more translator applications pending from 2003, pay attention. You’ll be having to do some homework, probably in the not too distant future. (The effective date of the new processes won’t be set until the 4th R&O makes it into the Federal Register. Check back here for updates on that – and know that the Commission is planning to move forward quickly with its efforts to clear the translator backlog while opening a filing window for LPFMs.)

Processing Pending Translator Applications

Here’s how the newly-adopted process is going to work.

Market Definition – “Spectrum Limited” vs. “Spectrum Available”

As previewed in last summer’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission has studied the availability of LPFM opportunities in the top 150 Arbitron markets (and six additional markets where more than four translator applications are pending). It did this by examining, for each of those markets, a thirty-minute latitude by thirty-minute longitude grid laid out over the center-city coordinates. The grid consists of 961 points (i.e., 31x31), and for each point the Commission analyzed the availability of all 100 FM channels for LPFM use. 

To be deemed available for such use, a channel at any particular point in the grid had to fully satisfy co-channel, first- and second-adjacent channel LPFM spacing requirements with respect to all outstanding authorizations and pending applications (including pending translator apps).

From the grid analysis the Commission determined how many LPFM availabilities exist in each of the studied markets. (“Availabilities” in this sense include both vacant channels and channels currently used by LPFM stations.) Armed with those determinations, the Commission then made an initial rough cut, dividing the studied markets into two groups: the “spectrum limited” markets (initially referred to as “dismiss all” markets) and the “spectrum available” markets (initially known as “process all” markets). The former consisted of markets where the number of LPFM availabilities fell below a certain “floor”. For Markets 1-20, the floor is eight channels; for Markets 21-50, it’s seven; for Markets 51-100, it’s six; and for the rest of the studied markets, it’s five. (FYI – The floor numbers were based on a “rough approximation of the number of noncommercial educational stations in the top 150 markets”, according to the Commission.)

The rough cut was then further refined. All markets initially designated as “spectrum available” were analyzed to identify markets in which the population is centrally concentrated. This was done by laying a 21x21 grid (rather than the original 31x31) over the market and checking the population within that 21x21 grid. If the 21x21 grid population amounted to 75% or more of the population in the 31x31grid, then the relevant “floor” for that market was determined by reference to availabilities only within the 21x21 grid, rather than the 31x31 grid. That exercise moved some of the markets from the original “spectrum available” column over to the “spectrum limited” side of the ledger. (The rationale for this additional step is that LPFMs may be best suited for urban communities, and use of the wider 31x31 grid might not provide an accurate assessment of spectrum availability in the actual population center.)

Using the results of that further analysis – along with up-to-date BIA information – the Commission devised its final lists of “spectrum available” and “spectrum limited” markets.

The Culling Process

Now let’s look at the pending translator applications. 

As a threshold matter, the Commission has adopted in the 4th R&O two separate caps on pending translator applicants. First, there’s a nationwide limit of 50 applications (from the 2003 filing window) per applicant. Second, each applicant may prosecute only one application in each of the 156 markets analyzed by the Commission. So if you’re among the pending applicants and you have more than 50 applications and/or more than one application per market, you will need to decide which of your horses you want to keep riding. The Commission will issue a public notice alerting applicants when and how applicants in that situation will have to advise the FCC which applications they plan to stick with – but be alert: much of the procedural spade work on this has been started already (including the Paperwork Reduction Act process), so things could happen quickly. While some analytical tools have already been made available to help run preclusion studies, word is that more such tools will be released soon. (Anyone who has to worry about tossing applications overboard should be careful NOT to consult with other applicants in making the decision about which apps to toss: as indicated below, the anti-collusion rules are still in effect.)

Once that winnowing process has been completed, all remaining applications in “spectrum available” markets will be processed, starting with any singletons and moving through the remainder of the mutually exclusive (MX) groups. MX applicants will be given an opportunity (probably no more than 90 days) to work out their mutual exclusivity by amendment or settlement – after which, it’s on to the auctions. Of course, amendments cannot preclude any LPFM availability identified in the grid studies. Amendments will be processed first-come/first-served, but unamended applications will enjoy cut-off protection against amendments filed during the settlement window.

As far as applications in “spectrum limited” markets go, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that, contrary to the FCC’s original proposal last summer, all translator applications in “spectrum limited” markets will not be automatically dismissed. 

The bad news is that, to avoid dismissal, such applicants will have to demonstrate that they don’t cause any “preclusive impact” on protected LPFM channel/point combinations. There’ll be one opportunity to amend pending proposals to avoid such “preclusive impact”. It’s theoretically possible that some translator applications in some “spectrum limited” markets could squeeze themselves through the LPFM screen the Commission has established. For that reason, the elimination of the initially-proposed automatic universal dismissal is good, especially for proposals outside any market grid. (In-grid proposals, however, are less likely to make the cut.)

And there’s more bad news for any translator applicant proposing facilities outside the 31x31 grid in one of the Top 50 “spectrum limited” markets. If that’s you, you will also have to make a “Top 50 Market Preclusion Showing”, i.e., a demonstration that either:

(a) no LPFM station could be licensed at the translator’s proposed transmitter site or,

(b) if an LPFM station could be licensed at the site, an additional channel remains available for a future LPFM station at the same site.

Good luck with that.

A couple more tips on dealing with markets and grids.

First, deciding what’s a “protected LPFM channel/point combination” will vary, depending on whether you’re in a “spectrum limited” or “spectrum available” market. 

For “spectrum available” markets, an LPFM channel/point combination is entitled to protection only if an LPFM station at that site would meet all spacing requirements, including full spacing to all pending translator applications on co-channel, first- and second-adjacent channels. A pending translator application automatically meets that standard since, by definition, the hypothetical LPFM would have to be fully spaced to the pending application already. But note that, if the translator application is amended, all bets are off as far as the amendment goes: the amendment would have to demonstrate adequate spacing to all LPFM channel/point combinations.

For “spectrum limited” markets, on the other hand, the calculation (for both channel/point and Top 50 Market Preclusion studies) will “assume the dismissal of all translator applications in the market”. Also, neither of those calculations will take into account either (a) second-adjacent spacings to authorized stations or pending applications or (b) I.F. spacing requirements. In other words, the Commission is assuming that all LPFM applicants would be able to qualify for waiver of the second-adjacent spacing requirement, and it apparently doesn’t care about potential I.F. short-spacing.

Second, bear in mind that the grid for any particular market may be smaller than the market itself. LPFM opportunities that might exist outside the grid are not entitled to protection in either “spectrum limited” or “spectrum available” markets. So a translator application in any “spectrum available” market or any “spectrum limited” market below the Top 50 will be grantable if it specifies a site which meets the minimum LPFM-translator spacings. (And don’t forget that translator applicants in the Top 50 “spectrum limited” markets must also make that pesky preclusion showing.)

Other Matters

AM on FM Translators – The 4th R&O strikes a blow for the AM industry by expanding the universe of FM translators eligible to rebroadcast AM signals. In 2009, when such cross-service rebroadcasting was first permitted, the Commission limited eligibility for AM rebroadcasts to FM translators already authorized as of May 1, 2009. That meant that the 1,000 or so new translators which the Commission expects to grant out of the still-pending vintage 2003 applications would not have been available for AMers. The 4th R&O, recognizing that the cross-service option has been a “very successful deregulatory policy”, takes care of the problem by specifying that rebroadcast of AM stations will be permitted on any translator the initial application for which was pending as of May 1, 2009.

Since there haven’t been any new FM translator windows since May, 2009, that revised date limitation encompasses all currently existing and applied-for translators. As a practical matter, that may be all the translators there are likely to be. The Commission has committed to opening a new LPFM window before any further translator filing opportunities arise. The effect that that LPFM window will have on possible future translator opportunities isn’t clear. While a tsunami of LoPo applications could clog things up a lot, the flexibility of the translator rules may still afford plenty of opportunities down the line. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Freezes on New and Mod Translator Grants – Since 2005 there has been a freeze on grants of any of the 2003 translator applications, and since last year there has been a freeze on the filing of any translator “move-in” applications (other than relocations within the same “Spectrum Limited” market). Those freezes appear now to have been lifted. The 4th R&O expressly lifts the freeze on acting on any of the 2003 applications. It seems also to indicate that the move-in freeze is similarly lifted, although the 4th R&O is not as clear and unequivocal on that point as one might like. (Look for a clarifying notice on this, and possibly other aspects of the 4th R&O, at some point down the line.) 

Heads up, though. New move-in and mod applications that would bring a translator into a “spectrum limited” market will have to demonstrate that they will have no “preclusive impact” on protected LPFM channel/point combinations.

Anti-collusion Prohibitions Still In Effect – Translator applicants from the Class of 2003 should be aware that they are still subject to the anti-collusion rules, and will remain so at least through the process of identifying which applications they will continue to prosecute notwithstanding the application caps described above. As we have frequently cautioned prospective auction participants, those anti-collusion rules are strict, not necessarily intuitively obvious, and often unforgiving. Before discussing your plans and strategies with any third parties, you would be well advised to check those rules over to be sure that you’re not digging yourself into an unfortunate hole.

The Commission (and, in particular, the folks in the Audio Division) have completed a truly herculean task here. Sorting out the conflicting interests of translator and LPFM proponents was difficult enough, but doing so against the backdrop of 6,500 or so long-pending translator applications screaming for attention and Congressional direction that provided little useful, er, direction makes the accomplishment even more impressive. The way is now clear for the processing of a significant number of those translator applications. While it seems fairly obvious that few new translators will be authorized in the middle of major markets, that shouldn’t surprise anybody: the translator service was, after all, not designed for major markets.

Again, if you have one or more translator applications pending, you should be sure to get with your consulting engineer and start looking closely at the information from the FCC’s grids. It’s likely that you’ll be needing to make some decisions in the not-too-distant future, and the more time you give yourself to figure out your best move(s), the better off you’ll be when the time comes to make those moves.

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