The FCC at its May Open Meeting adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing reforms to the Commission’s current procedures used to resolve complaints of interference caused by FM translator stations. As the NPRM recites, the FM translator service was instituted in 1970 as a way to improve reception of FM radio stations in areas where direct reception was hampered by terrain, distance, or other obstructions. As a secondary service, however, FM translators have always been prohibited from causing interference to the reception of any other broadcast station. In recent years, use of FM translators has expanded greatly, including use of FM translators by AM stations. Along with increased use of FM translators has come increased claims of interference, as well as complaints regarding the Commission’s procedures for resolving those claims. The NPRM, aims to reform a number of these processes.

Under the Commission’s existing rules, complaints regarding interference may be raised at the application stage (predicted interference) or after a station has begun operation (actual interference). Claims of predicted interference raised in opposition to an application must provide “convincing evidence” that the proposed translator will cause interference to reception of an existing station. A complaining party must provide the name and address of a listener whose address is located within the proposed contour of the translator and who will receive interference if the application is granted. Claims of actual interference may be raised at any time, and may be supported by statements from one or more bona fide listeners at any location. To qualify as bona fide, a listener complaining of interference must provide his or her name, address, the location where the interference occurs, and statements that he or she is a listener, and does not have any legal, economic, or financial stake in the outcome of the proceeding (i.e., he or she cannot be affiliated with the stations involved). Finally, the complaining listener is, under current rules, required to cooperate with the translator licensee in attempting to resolve the interference.

The FCC proposes new rules in the NPRM designed to streamline the interference resolution process and requests comment on whether further changes may be advisable. The proposed changes address both 1) what will be required in filing complaints and 2)the options available to resolve interference.

Going forward, the NPRM proposes that a complaint of actual interference filed by another broadcast station must be supported by at least six bona fide listener complaints. (the FCC also requests comment on whether this number should be adjusted based on the population in the areas of alleged interference.) To qualify as a bona fide listener complaint, the NPRM proposes requiring complaints to include:

  1. a full name and contact information;
  2. a clear, concise, and accurate description of the location of the alleged interference;
  3. a statement that the listener listens to the affected station at least twice per month; and
  4. a statement that the complainant has no legal, financial, or familial affiliation with the affected station.

On that final point, the NPRM clarifies that social media connections with the station (e.g., “liking” the station’s Facebook page) will not be disqualifying and that complaints solicited by the station or presented in a standardized format will be acceptable. The proposed rules will not prevent a translator licensee from reaching out directly to listeners whose complaints are filed with the Commission, but those listeners will no longer be required to cooperate in efforts to eliminate interference.

In addition to submitting the requisite number of listener complaints, a station complaining of actual interference would, under the proposed rules, also need to submit a map showing the locations of the alleged interference in relation to the contours of the stations involved. Complaints, whether related to actual interference or predicted interference, would only be accepted if they demonstrate interference at locations within the complaining station’s 54 dBu contour. Once a station has filed an interference complaint that is supported by the required information, the NPRM proposes requiring the translator licensee to submit a technical showing demonstrating that interference has been eliminated (e.g., submission of desired/undesired signal ratios at the relevant locations).

The rules proposed in the NPRM would also make one significant change that could make it much easier for translator licensees to resolve legitimate interference complaints. Under both the current and proposed rules, translator licensees will be required to resolve interference by suspending operations, or by using “suitable techniques.” This could include reducing power, modifying antenna characteristics, changing transmission sites, or changing channels. Under current rules, the option of changing channels is limited to moving to first, second, third, or IF channels. The rules proposed in the NPRM, however, would expand the available channels to include any channel within the band (reserved or non-reserved) in which the translator is currently licensed.

Finally, the NPRM requests comment on whether the Commission should establish deadlines for translators to resolve claims of actual interference, as well as deadlines for the Commission itself to resolve such complaints.

Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due an additional 30 days after that. Keep an eye on CommLawBlog for those deadlines.