Audio Division suggests translators operating near co-channel full-service stations may be lost cause

This just isn’t the year to be in the FM translator business. First, there were setbacks in the long-running battle between translator and LPFM interests. Then there was the Audio Division’s announcement that the practice of “hopping” translators from site to site is Very Very Bad Behavior (even though the Division acknowledged that that practice was not prohibited by the rules, as demonstrated by the fact that the Division had repeatedly grants such hops for years). 

And now the Division has reminded translators that they really are secondary to full-power stations.

In a letter resolving a face-off between an FM station in Toledo and a co-channel translator in Detroit, the Division has come down smack on the side of Mr. Toledo – with an order to Mr. Detroit to shut down his translator immediamente. And adding insult to injury, the letter flatly rejects the translator operator’s proposal to hand out “iHeartRadio”-equipped smartphones so that folks encountering interference to the over-the-air signal of the full-power station can receive an interference-free signal over the Internet.

iHeartRadio – maybe; iHeartTranslators – not so much.

The bottom line result should not surprise anybody. The Commission’s rules prohibit interference caused by a translator to “the direct reception by the public of the off-the-air signals of any [full-power] broadcast station”. But when two co-channel operations happen to be as close as these two were, interference is bound to occur. So you had to figure that the translator’s days were numbered.

Still, the translator licensee came up with a novel response to his plight. Remember, while the rules bar interference, they also give the translator licensee the opportunity to try to eliminate the interference “by the application of suitable techniques”. In this case, the Detroit translator proposed to give a smartphone with an “iHeartRadio” app installed to each listener complaining of interference. The Toledo station is available through the “iHeartRadio” on-line service (no shock there: “iHeartRadio” is a service promoted by Clear Channel, which – IRONY ALERT! – happens to be the ultimate owner of the Toledo station). The Internet feed of the station would not be affected by any over-the-air interference caused by the translator, so the translator licensee argued that the smartphone offer satisfied the rules.

Not so fast, said the Audio Division. Providing interference-free access to would-be listeners through a non-broadcast service is not the same as “eliminating interference”. The goal of the rule is to assure interference-free over-the-air reception. The smartphone ploy may provide an end-run around the interference problem, but it does nothing to eliminate that problem. As a result, the proposed smartphone solution is “patently insufficient”.

If the Division’s letter had stopped there, it would have been of relatively limited interest – how many translator licensees are likely to be wanting to hand out smartphones, for crying out loud?

But the Division went on. It noted that, because the translator and the full-power station were co-channel and geographically close to one another, there is a “considerable likelihood” that the Commission will face a “never-ending series” of complaints. That’s because the usual “suitable techniques” used to remedy interference when second- and third-adjacent stations are involved – e.g., relocation of the translator, or installation of filters – just don’t work in co-channel situations. (The Division could probably also have lumped first-adjacent situations in with co-channels on that score as well.) And absent remedial devices, the Division appears to anticipate essentially irremediable interference, the only answer for which is termination of the translator’s operation.

This should send a chill down the spines of translator operators (or applicants) who have tried to engineer their stations to squeeze into tight allotment situations. It is possible – on paper, at least – to pick technical facilities that appear not to cause any theoretical interference: carefully reduced power, a carefully selected site, and a finely sharpened pencil in the hands of a motivated engineer can work magic. Based on such a theoretical showing, the Commission can, and often does, grant construction permits for such facilities. But once those facilities are built, the grim reality kicks in: close geographical proximity plus co-channel (and possibly first-adjacent) operation equals real world interference, both inside and outside the full-power station’s protected contour. 

And that’s the kind of interference that the Division seems to be saying will be the kiss of death, literally, for the translator.

The bad news doesn’t end there. The Division’s letter reflects a loss of bureaucratic patience with translators. After running through a litany of questions that the Commission might have to resolve if it were to endorse the proposed smartphone remedy, the Division throws up its regulatory hands and walks away: “The Commission cannot and need not expend such significant resources to keep a translator station on the air.” Ouch.

While this may sound like bad news to some translator operators, it is no doubt great news to any full-service licensee who finds itself beset by interference from a nearby co-channel translator. All indications are that the Audio Division feels your pain, and is prepared to help you out.