Yes, REC Networks (“RECNET”) is on a roll with the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) when it comes to the FM radio broadcast band. Describing itself as a “leading advocate for a citizen’s access to spectrum with a heavy focus on the LPFM and full-service non-commercial radio,” RECNET has succeeded in getting the FCC to propose modifications to the Low Power FM (“LPFM”) rules and has jumped right back in the game with a new petition to allow the creation of new small non-commercial FM stations in rural areas.
On the LPFM side, in response to a RECNET petition filed a little over a year ago, the FCC has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) looking toward eliminating some technical obstacles that have blocked both modifications of the facilities of existing LPFM stations and the creation of new LPFM stations. Despite (or perhaps sometimes because of) the existing technical rules, which are fairly liberal, many community groups wishing to build LPFM stations have been unable to do so. Existing LPFM stations, which often suffer debilitating interference from other stations, have been precluded from modifying their facilities to try to improve reception by the public. The proliferation of unlicensed and unauthorized (so-called “pirate”) FM stations, a phenomenon to which neither the FCC nor the radio industry takes kindly, is evidence of continuing strong demand for outlets for minority, ethnic, and other niche programming formats that may not generate enough revenue to support the cost of operating a full-power FM station – outlets that LPFM can sometimes provide.
The current technical requirements for LPFM stations are intentionally simple. Permissible transmitter locations are determined by fixed mileage separation requirements from co-channel and adjacent-channel stations, and power levels are fixed at 100 watts (the FCC has not yet accepted applications for a 10-watt class). Transmitter site changes are limited to 5.6 km (3.5 miles). This regulatory simplicity allows the use of computer tools by relatively unsophisticated persons to find frequencies and transmitter sites, although professional engineers are often retained to help applicants find frequencies and sites in congested areas where they need adjacent-channel rule waivers. No person or entity may have an interest in more than one LPFM station or in an LPFM and any other broadcast medium anywhere in the United States.
While there are benefits to simple rules, simplicity can also restrict options available to LPFM applicants and licensees. Since the demand for stations continues to be strong, and interference problems have proved insoluble for some LPFM stations, the FCC is now proposing to introduce more sophistication into its LPFM technical rules. First, it asks whether it should allow LPFM stations to use directional antennas to shape their signals to avoid causing interference and to comply with international treaty restrictions near the Canadian and Mexican borders. If it allows directional antennas, the FCC asks whether it should authorize only off-the-shelf patterns or allow customized antenna design. Directional antennas for full-power FM stations require measurements on the antenna as-built and certifications by installers, which require professional assistance and cost money. The FCC asks whether there are less expensive substitutes for pattern measurements; but it does not seem inclined to allow directional antennas without post-installation review by the FCC, as it does for Low Power TV stations.
The next proposal is to eliminate the rule requiring LPFM stations at the lower end of the FM band to protect Channel 6 TV stations, which operate in the 82-88 MHz band and thus are the equivalent of adjacent-channel to FM stations on 88.1, 88.3, and 88.5 MHz. The theory is that all full-power TV stations on Channel 6 are now digital, and digital TV receivers are much more immune from analog FM interference than analog receivers. But there are still many analog LPTV stations, including some that intend their audio signals to be picked up on FM radios; and the operators of those Channel 6 stations have pressured the FCC to allow them to provide an analog audio add-on component to a digital signal beyond the 2021 deadline when the current rules require the end of all analog LPTV operation. The FCC also does not mention potential interference going the other way, caused by Channel 6 LPTV stations to LPFM stations.
For existing LPFM stations seeking approval for transmitter site moves, the FCC proposes to allow two alternative tests – a limit of 5.6 km on moves or overlap of the authorized and proposed 60 dBu signal contours of the LPFM station. If it allows moves of more than 5.6 km, the FCC asks whether it should require stations to show that there is no available transmitter site within 5.6 km.
The LPFM rules liberally allow waivers of interference caused to second- and third-adjacent channel stations; but there is an exception where the third-adjacent station has a radio reading service on an analog subcarrier, because a third-adjacent LPFM signal could prevent the public (primarily blind) persons from receiving the subcarrier signal component. The FCC has declined to relax that protection; nor is it willing to publish a list of radio reading service stations, because it does not have reliable information in its databases. It suggests that LPFM stations inquire directly of full-power stations that are the subject of waiver requests and also recommends looking at a list here.
The FCC has been steadfast in limiting LPFM station ownership to one to a customer, hoping to ensure local ownership and management. Although the agency is under heavy pressure to relax multiple ownership restrictions on full-power stations, it proposes only one change for LPFM. LPFM licensees may now hold licenses for up to two translators, which rebroadcast the parent signal on different channels. It proposes to allow boosters, which retransmit on the same channel, to substitute for translators; but the total limit for translators and boosters together would remain at two.
Finally, the FCC has declined to propose to relieve LPFM stations from Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) participation. LPFM stations are required only to receive emergency tests and alerts, which involves some expense and attention, but do not have to broadcast weekly or monthly tests; but the FCC feels that this level of participation is important. It seeks to encourage greater participation in national tests, because fewer than half of LPFM stations participated in the national test last year, even though participation was mandatory.
Comments on the NPRM will be due only 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. We will post the deadline when publication occurs.
So what’s next for on the RECNET ride? In a rulemaking petition filed on July 8, 2019 (RM-11846), RECNET has asked the FCC to accept applications for new small noncommercial educational (“NCE”) FM stations, locally owned, with a maximum 250-watt power limit, in rural areas. Unlike LPFM stations, which are secondary, these new NCE stations would be primary spectrum users.
What’s all this about? According to RECNET, rural areas have been deprived of locally-based informational services because of requirements to protect second- and third-adjacent channel stations in urban areas. Statutory and regulatory constraints make the establishment of new LPFM stations difficult or impossible. The new NCE class of station would have a decent amount of power and could be authorized based on more flexible engineering rules than apply to LPFM.
Engineering analysis of applications for these new stations would enjoy more liberal second- and third-adjacent channel interference restrictions, with RECNET claiming that the existing standards are unduly restrictive and out-of-date in light of improvements in FM receiver technology. Only communities with no existing commercial or noncommercial AM or FM service would be eligible, although the presence of an LPFM station would not be a barrier. The transmitter site would have to be located outside any county in a Nielsen top 50 radio market, and the 60 dBu signal could not penetrate any Census Bureau urbanized area. Applicants would have to show that a 100-watt station could not meet existing interference requirements and that the protected signal contour of an existing NCE station from an urbanized area covers the proposed new station transmitter site.
RECNET offers a 16-page list, with three columns to a page, of communities that it thinks would likely qualify for the new type of station it proposes.
Applicants would have to be locally owned, even more so than LPFM applicants. Instead of having either a headquarters or most of its board members living in the local area, applicants would have to meet both tests. The intent is to avoid such stations becoming “satellators” – meaning rebroadcast outlets, similar to translators that simply repeat programming from national sources.
Will this latest proposal get anywhere? Perhaps so. But there are other factors to consider. LPFM stations often struggle today because their coverage is small, their signals receive incoming interference, and they cannot earn revenue by selling commercials. Will the population in small communities be able to support RECNET’s proposed new stations with only donations and underwriting? Will rural listeners lose reception of city stations that provide statewide news and National Public Radio programming? In other words, will there be a significant demand for the new stations, and how long will they survive? While some LPFM stations have fallen by the wayside, others have thrived as sources of local innovative programming. Will the FM band suffer more degradation from a proliferation of signals that has led to complaints from existing stations trying to stay above water in a marketplace where the public relies more and more on streaming for audio content? You never know how things may work out in the end; but RECNET has put a 60-page long petition in front of the FCC, asking for more of the “citizen’s access” for which it advocates.
Preliminary comments on the RECNET petition are due August 26.