Just as the Commission appears to be on the verge of resolving the long-running feud between FM translator proponents and LPFM proponents, in walks a petition for rulemaking proposing a new class of full-power FM channel in Zone II. The proposed class – ominous suggested name: C4 – would feature maximum ERP of 12 kW and maximum antenna height of 100 meters.

The idea is to shoe-horn the new class in between Class A and Class C3. The petitioner, SSR Communications, Incorporated observes, quite correctly, that the incremental power differences between Classes C and C0, C0 and C1, C1 and C2, and C2 and C3 are all three decibels, while the difference between Class A and Class C3 (the next class up from Class A) is more than twice that (6.2 dB). Like nature, SSR seems to abhor a vacuum – hence, the proposal to fill the space with the new C4.

Under SSR’s proposal, Class C4 would get its own class contour distance (33 km) and separate mileage spacings vis-à-vis other classes. Moreover, stations seeking to reclassify themselves as C4’s would be able to trigger orders to show cause directed to certain underfacilitied co-channel and adjacent channel stations, not subject to Section 73.215, that would otherwise preclude the reclassification. Such underfacilitied target stations would be forced either to upgrade themselves (in which case the C4 application would be dead meat) or immediately accept Section 73.215 status.  (SSR copped that approach from the FCC’s Class C0 upgrade process that’s been in effect for the last dozen or so years. Anyone familiar with that process should grasp the concept quickly.)

SSR touts the spectrum efficiency benefits of its proposal but, in making its pitch to the Commission, it seems to hammer even harder on an additional claim. According to SSR, its proposal will be of particular use to minority-owned stations. How many such stations are we talking about? In initially summarizing its proposal, SSR refers only to “several minority-owned Class A” stations that might benefit, but once it gets its rhetorical juices flowing, SSR manages to crank that estimate up to “dozens, if not hundreds of upgrade opportunities for existing minority-owned facilities”. SSR’s estimate is based on a preliminary analysis of seven Southeastern states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina).

The Commission has, of course, long expressed heartfelt concern about the plight of minority broadcasting, so SSR’s emphasis on that particular supposed upside of its proposal is understandable. But, historically, the Commission has been reluctant to modify its technical rules based on non-permanent factors such as the racial identity of the licensees of particular stations. So it’s not clear that that will be an effective selling point in the long run.

Moreover, SSR’s petition makes no reference to the effect its proposal might have on the potential availability of spectrum for LPFM stations. As we have repeatedly seen, the proponents of LPFM have garnered substantial support both at the Commission and in Congress, so anything that might upset that particular applecart is not likely to be greeted with open arms. To be sure, SSR’s proposal might have no effect at all on LPFM opportunities – but if that were the case, you’d think that SSR would have at least mentioned that in passing.

In any event, at this very early stage we don’t even know whether the Commission will do anything with SSR’s petition. It’s likely that we’ll see a public notice, possibly in the next month or so, noting the filing of the petition and asking for preliminary comments on it. (Check back with us for updates on that.) But even such a notice will not signal any real progress. Before SSR gets any traction here, the FCC will have to issue a “notice of proposed rulemaking” formally proposing adoption of SSR’s plan (or something like it). And there’s absolutely no guarantee that we’ll ever see such an NPRM. Nevertheless, SSR has tried to get the ball rolling.

[UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that the proposed maximum antenna height for Class C4 stations would be 100 METERS (i.e., 328 feet), NOT 100 feet as originally reported.  Thanks to reader Greg Jablonski for bringing this to our attention.]