NPR to FCC: Repeal Section 73.525

In a bold move guaranteed to generate heated debate, National Public Radio (NPR) has asked the Commission to dump the Channel 6 protection obligations (set out in Section 73.525) which have been imposed on noncommercial FM stations for the last quarter century. While the proposal no doubt appeals strongly to NPR’s NCE-FM constituency, the television side of the universe – and particularly current Channel 6 licensees and viewers – can’t be happy.

The protection requirements were imposed in the first place because the portion of the FM band reserved for NCE operations butts up against Channel 6, spectrum-wise. As a result, the potential for interference to Channel 6 operations from stations in the NCE-FM band was thought to be considerable, leading the Commission back in 1985 to impose extra hurdles in the path of new and improved NCE-FM service in order to shelter Channel 6. For all you spectrum historians, NPR’s petition for rulemaking provides interesting background about the development of the protection requirements. (Interesting factoid: the receivers used to determine the appropriate level of protection were all manufactured prior to 1979, meaning that the protection standards in place today are based on 30-year-old receiver technology – at best.)

According to NPR, the increased sensitivity of today’s television receivers – particularly in the wake of the DTV transition – warrants reconsideration of the standards. NPR even has two studies, conducted by its own labs and by the highly-respected techno-gurus at Hammett & Edison, which it cites in support of the proposition that the interference rule no longer serves any real purpose. 

NPR also claims that not too many viewers are likely to notice NCE-FM-induced interference to Channel 6 operations because more than 90% of U.S. viewers get their TV by cable or satellite, sources which are not subject to such interference. 

In contrast, NPR points to the seemingly insatiable demand for NCE-FM service. The most recent window filing opportunities for new non-comm radio authorizations (full-service and translators) have attracted tens of thousands of applications, each subject to the limiting effects of the Channel 6 rules. According to NPR, NCE-FM stations would enjoy, on average, a 75% increase in 60 dBu population coverage if Section 73.525 were to be tossed; some might increase by more than 200%.

NPR makes it all sound so good.

But what NPR doesn’t mention is that, while there may not be boatloads of full-service DTV stations still operating on Channel 6, there are a significant number of analog LPTV stations still up and running. These licensees do not yet have a deadline for converting to digital operation, and they typically provide service to the 10% of the public that does not have satellite and cable service. In addition, it isn’t clear whether analog TV sets that are plugged into DTV converter boxes will continue to experience interference if the interference protection requirements are lifted. Indeed, it’s apparently not even clear whether DTV converter boxes introduce or reduce the possibility of increased interference. Taking the NPR bait could lead to considerable reception problems for over-the-air viewers still loyal to Channel 6 stations.

These questions would obviously have to be examined carefully in any consideration of NPR’s proposal.

The NPR petition was filed on October 20. The Commission has not yet taken any action on it. In view of the petition’s relatively controversial proposal – as well as the Commission’s current fixation with all things broadband (to the apparent exclusion of anything broadcast) – the FCC may not get around to the petition for some time, if it gets around to it at all. In all likelihood, the first sign of progress we might see on this would be the assignment of a rulemaking number to the petition, together with a public notice soliciting comments on it. That could happen in a matter of weeks, or months, or longer. We will let you know if and when any opportunity to comment on the proposal opens up.

[Note: The NPR proposal is unrelated to the MMTC proposal, included in the MMTC Radio Rescue Petition, to have TV Channels 5 and 6 re-purposed for audio use only. It will be interesting to see if the Commission is inclined to fold the two together.]