Translator windows, interference protection changes, MDCL … and adios to the ratchet rule
Two years in the making, the FCC’s AM Revitalization decision (full name: “First Report and Order, Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making, and Notice of Inquiry” – let’s just stick with Revitalization Decision, shall we?) has finally worked its way through the peristalsis that is the FCC’s rulemaking process. And while it may not be precisely what many AM licensees would have preferred, it’s considerably more than what they might have expected from the Wheeler Commission. (For those of you with short memories, it was just last March that Chairman Wheeler seemed to be putting the kibosh on FM translator windows available only to AM licensees.)
So without further ado, let’s take a quick look at the major components of the Revitalization Decision.
FM Translator Windows
First, AMers will be getting a series of filing windows over the next two years which should make it easier for them to acquire FM translators on which to rebroadcast. The initial two windows – dubbed “Modification Windows” and set to be opened sometime in 2016 – will not allow applications for new translators. But it’s pretty much the next best thing.
During those windows AM licensees will be permitted to acquire and move any currently authorized (by license or permit) FM translator on a non-reserved channel (i.e., 92.1 MHz to 107.9 MHz) up to 250 miles AND, to the extent necessary, change the translator’s channel to any non-reserved FM channel that satisfies the rules. The first of the two Modification Windows will be available only for translators that will rebroadcast Class C or D AM station; that window will be open for six months. Following that six-month period, a second, three-month, window will be available for all AM licensees (including Class C and D stations that did not file an application in the first window).
The AM licensee proposing the modifications to the translator need not be the translator’s licensee. The AM station could be a proposed purchaser of the translator (as long as an application proposing the purchase is on file), or it could simply have a written rebroadcast agreement with the translator’s licensee or permittee.
There are a few caveats here. First, each AM station may apply for one and only one translator. Second, any translator acquired during these windows will be required to rebroadcast the AM station specified in the application for a minimum of four years (exclusive of silent periods) from the date it commences service at its modified location. Third, applications filed in the Modification Windows will be on a first-come, first-served basis. In other words, earlier-filed applications will have cut-off priority over later-filed applications, so any licensee – and particularly Class C or D licensees – thinking about taking advantage of this opportunity would be well-advised to start planning now in order to be ready to file as soon as the Modification Windows open. (On that front, Professor Dan Ryson, a crackerjack engineer with our pals at Cavell, Mertz and Associates, has prepared a translator search tool which is now up and running, for free, on their website. All you have to do is key in an AM call sign on their FCCInfo page. That’ll get you to the station’s page – where you’ll find a link that lets you create a listing of commercial band FM translators within 250 miles of the station’s site. That should give you a good start in the process.
To increase the inventory of translators potentially available for acquisition in these windows, the Commission will also waive the three-year construction period for translator permits issued in connection with Auction No. 83 (applications for which were filed in the notorious 2003 translator window). According to the FCC, some 1,300 such permits are set to expire in 2016. But, in the Commission’s view, waiver of the construction deadlines for those permits is “presumptively in the public interest” as long as the AM station proposing to use the still-unconstructed translator commits to build it and commence operation promptly. (Also apropos of the 2003 translator applications, the Commission has committed to conducting an auction aimed at finally disposing of the still-ungranted mutually exclusive applications – but that won’t happen until sometime after the Broadcast Incentive Auction has wrapped up.)
After both Modification Windows have opened and closed – i.e., sometime in 2017 or thereabouts – the Commission will open another two FM translator windows for any AM station that did not file a modification application during either of the 2016 windows. Again, each applicant will be able to file for one and only one new translator. It will have to comply with the siting rules for fill-in translators rebroadcasting AM stations and, if the application is granted, the resulting translator will be permanently linked to the AM station specified in the application.
Again, the first of these two New Translator windows will be open only to Class C and D stations. The second – which will be open to all AM licensees and permittees who did not participate in any of the three earlier window – will be scheduled only after the first New Translator window has closed and the applicants in that window have had a change to resolve any mutual exclusivities through settlement or technical resolution.
Before the first Modification Window opens, the Media Bureau will engage in a three-month outreach effort to encourage Class C and D stations to participate in the process. That effort started immediately after the adoption of the Revitalization Decision with the release of a helpful public notice summarizing the process and conditions associated with the Modification Windows. Note also that the Bureau will be sending window-related information directly to all Class C and D AM licensees; look for an email addressed to the licensee’s contact representative as listed in CDBS. (The notice provides instructions for checking and, if necessary, changing, your CDBS contact rep.) The Bureau has also established a dedicated email address – AMmodification@fcc.gov – for questions about the window process, and it plans to set up an AM Revitalization page on the FCC’s website.
When the FCC first proposed some translator window filing opportunities for AM licensees back in 2013, it suggested that the availability of such opportunities might obviate the need for the Mattoon Waiver policy. That’s the policy, invented by the Audio Division four years ago, that allows AM licensees some leeway in moving FM translators around so that they can be used to rebroadcast AM signals. The policy, as characterized by the full Commission, requires that:
(1) the applicant does not have a history of filing serial minor modification applications;
(2) the proposed site is mutually exclusive with the licensed translator facility; and
(3) the translator will rebroadcast the proposed AM primary station.
The Commission has now re-thought the notion of abandoning the Mattoon policy. Instead, in the Revitalization Decision the FCC expressly directs the staff to continue granting Mattoon waivers where appropriate (i.e., when the criteria listed above are met). Interestingly, the FCC also takes this opportunity to ratify a largely unreported tweak to the policy that the Audio Division had tacked on somewhere along the way: FM translator stations whose facilities are modified, pursuant to a Mattoon waiver, to permit rebroadcasting of an AM station must rebroadcast that station for at least four years (not counting silent periods).
The Commission was not, however, willing to extend the Mattoon policy as had been proposed in the Tell City proceeding. While that proceeding is still technically pending before the Commission, the agency declined to take this opportunity to resolve it one way or the other. It did, however, expressly hold that, until otherwise instructed, the staff is not to extend Mattoon beyond the criteria indicated above.
In addition to the translator windows, the Revitalization Decision includes a number of less dramatic – but still potentially helpful – technical tweaks to the AM rules. And according to the folks at Cavell, Mertz, some of these non-translator-related changes may provide some AM stations opportunities worth exploring. For example:
Community Coverage Requirements for AM Stations
To make it easier for existing AM stations to improve their facilities, the FCC has relaxed its city-grade signal requirements. Going forward, a licensed AM station’s daytime 5 mV/m contour (predicted or measured) will need to encompass only 50% of the population or the area of the community of license. This relaxed standard will not be available to applicants for (a) new stations or (b) a change of an existing station’s community of license.
The Commission also decided to eliminate the nighttime community coverage requirement for existing licensed AM stations. Again, though, that relaxation will not be available to applicants for new AM stations or changes in community of license; those folks will instead be required to cover (a) either 50% of the population or area of the community of license with (b) either a nighttime 5 mV/m signal or a nighttime interference-free contour, whichever value is higher.
“Ratchet Rule” Eliminated
The so-called “ratchet rule” has been eliminated. If you don’t already know what the ratchet rule is, this is good news for you, since you won’t have to try to wrap your mind around it. (For some background, check out our post on the topic; it dates back to 2009, when elimination of the rule was first formally proposed.) Suffice it to say that the ratchet rule was an extremely technical rule that, in effect, tended to discourage station improvements. Highly respected consulting engineers – namely, our friends Ron Rackley and Ben Dawson – recognized the overall counterproductivity of the rule more than six years ago, and so advised the FCC. The only real question here is why it has taken the Commission so long to get to the same conclusion.
Prior Approval to Use MDCL No Longer Required
Since 2011 the Media Bureau has allowed AM stations to utilize Modulation Dependent Carrier Level (MDCL) control technologies, subject to the Bureau’s prior approval. MDCL allows an AM station to vary the carrier (or the carrier and sideband) power levels as a function of the modulation level, thus allowing the station to reduce transmitter power consumption while maintaining audio quality and signal coverage.
With four years’ of apparently problem-free MDCL experience under its belt, the Commission has now decided to let AM stations use MDCL control operation without prior Commission authority. There are a couple of catches, though. A station using MDCL must notify the Commission within 10 days after commencement of MDCL operation. And, regardless of the MDCL control technology employed, stations will have to achieve full licensed power at some audio input level or when the MDCL control technology is disabled. Further, a station using MDCL control technology must disable it before field strength measurements on the station are taken by the licensee or others.
Antenna Efficiency Standards Relaxed
To give AM stations greater flexibility in site selection and antenna system design, the Commission has reduced the existing AM antenna efficiency standards by 25%. And while the FCC declined to eliminate the antenna efficiency requirements altogether, it did direct the Media Bureau to entertain requests for experimental authorizations that would allow existing AMers to operate with antenna systems that don’t meet the modified antenna efficiency rules. To get such an authorization, you’ll have to demonstrate both that: (a) such operation won’t increase interference to other AM stations and (b) the proposed system will be stable.
With the exception of the MDCL procedures, the various rule changes adopted will go into effect 30 days after the order is published in the Federal Register. The MDCL changes involve “information collections” which must first be run past the Office of Management and Budget, thanks to the hilariously-named Paperwork Reduction Act. Check back here for updates about both effective dates.
In addition to the specific changes described above, the Revitalization Decision includes a number of proposals for further changes. Some of these proposals are relatively specific; they’re set out in the “Notice of Proposed Rule Making” (NPRM) portion of the decision. Others are more general and likely to require more time to gestate; they’re in the “Notice of Inquiry” (NOI) portion. Because the former are presented in an NPRM, the Commission could act on them following the closing of the comment period. The proposals described in the NOI portion, on the other hand, will have to be the subject of a separate NPRM before they can be adopted.
The proposals included in the NPRM are:
- Change the Nighttime and Critical Hours Protection for Class A AM Stations. Interference protection for all Class A stations would be modified in various ways: (1) Co-channel protection, both day and night, would be to their 0.1 mV/m groundwave contour; (2) First adjacent channel protection, both day and night, would be to their 0.5 mV/m groundwave contour; and (3) Critical hours protection would be eliminated completely. If adopted, this proposal might allow some non-Class A stations to increase power.
- Change Nighttime RSS Calculation Methodology. The pre-1991 methodology for calculating RSS values of interfering field strengths and nighttime interference-free service would be reinstated. Under that methodology, an applicant would predict the nighttime interference-free coverage area using only the interference contributions from co-channel stations and using the 50% exclusion method. (If you have trouble understanding those last two sentences, fear not – you’re not alone. You should get together with a consulting engineer familiar with the AM technical rules.
- Change Daytime Protection to Class B, C and D AM Stations. The Commission is considering various changes to other protection requirements, including: (1) reduction of the first adjacent channel protection for Class B, C and D stations to 0 dB daytime 1:1; (2) changing second adjacent channel groundwave protection; and (3) eliminating third adjacent channel groundwave protection. The goal is to allow stations sufficient signal strength to overcome current levels of environmental noise. The Commission is also proposing to change the daytime primary service contour for Class B, C, and D stations to the 2 mV/m contour, harmonizing the protection with the definition of “service area” adopted in the Rural Radio proceeding.
- Relaxing Restrictions on Where FM Translators Rebroadcasting AM Stations May be Located. Currently, the 1.0 mV/m contour of an FM translator rebroadcasting an AM station must be within the lesser of the AM station’s 2.0 mV/m contour or a 25-mile circle around the AM station’s transmitter site. Now under consideration: modification of that limit to provide that the 1.0 mV/m contour of an FM translator rebroadcasting an AM station must be contained within the greater of either the 2 mV/m daytime contour of the AM station or a 25-mile (40 km) radius centered at the AM transmitter site; under the proposal, though, in no event would the translator’s 1.0 mV/m coverage contour be permitted to extend beyond a 40-mile (64 km) radius centered at the AM transmitter site.
- Other Technical Rules Changes. The Commission also proposes to relax in some measure its rules regarding partial proofs of performance and Method of Moments proofs. (If you would like further details regarding these proposal, please let us know.)
- Expanded Band Issues. Twenty-five station owners that were awarded an expanded band (1605 to 1705 KHz) license still also hold the license for the standard band station that the expanded band facility was intended to replace. This is contrary to the general expectation back when the band was expanded, i.e., that a licensee taking advantage of the expanded band would have to give up its standard band station. The Commission is now proposing that any licensee with dual standard band/expanded band authorizations be required to surrender one of the two authorizations.
Finally, the NOI portion of the Revitalization Decision raises two questions for comment:
- Should the expanded band be re-opened for additional applications and, if so, what rules and procedures should be applied?
- Should the main studio requirements be relaxed for AM stations?
The deadlines for comments and replies in response to both the NPRM and NOI portions have not yet been set. Check back here for updates.