Pubradio rejects higher status for low-power
Both big and little FMs fear encroaching signals
Advocates for full-power pubradio stations and their low-power FM cousins are at odds again over FCC proposals to allocate more frequencies for LPFM, whose extent and prerogatives have been debated since the commission authorized the new class of noncommercial stations in 2000.
More than 800 low-power stations have signed on since then, but their low rank in the FCC’s pecking order has made them vulnerable to being bumped off the air by full-power stations.
The vast majority of LPFMs broadcast outside of the section of the FM band reserved for noncommercial use, and advocates on both sides know of no encroachment conflicts between public radio and LPFM stations. But pubcasters are concerned about the potential for disruption of services, including pubradio’s translators, that could result if the FCC adopts the more flexible rules it has proposed.
In some areas, LPFM may conflict with the translators that repeat full-power stations. Public Radio Regional Organizations, a group representing public stations, has warned the FCC that any policy favoring LPFMs over translators could endanger a widely used service, noting that 9 million listeners rely on translators to receive pubradio.
NPR argues that the proposed changes would unreasonably burden its member stations by requiring them to resolve LPFM interference problems. Adoption of the new FCC rules also would jeopardize the extensive network of translators that pubradio stations have built with federal assistance and would upend the commission’s longstanding spectrum policies favoring full-power broadcasters, according to NPR.
“It may be one thing to ‘squeeze in’ secondary low-power facilities into a mature broadcast service,” NPR said, referring to the commission’s original plan for LPFM, “[but] it is quite another to reverse decades of commission policy and rules favoring higher-powered broadcast facilities by elevating LPFM stations to co-equal status with full power stations.”
“The laws of physics have not changed, and a system of full-power broadcast stations serves many more listeners with less interference compared to low-power broadcasting,” NPR wrote.
Goodbye third-adjacent protections?
The FCC rulemaking revives the debate over interference protections, proposing to waive channel-spacing rules for LPFMs under certain circumstances. The circumstances: If a full-power station petitions to broadcast on a frequency that interferes with an LPFM station, the LPFM would be allowed to operate on a second-adjacent channel, two clicks away from the full-power station.
The FCC is prohibited from licensing LPFMs on channels that are within three clicks of full-power stations, the so-called third-adjacent channels. Congress imposed this restriction in 2000 with the aim of protecting full-power broadcasters from interference, substantially curtailing the number of frequencies open for LPFM. An interference study commissioned by the FCC later recommended a more flexible formula for licensing LPFMs on third-adjacent channels, and the FCC has recommended that Congress repeal the prohibition.
Congress has taken steps to do so. Legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last year — and endorsed by all three presidential candidates — would overturn the third-adjacent channel restriction, but the bill has not been scheduled for a floor vote.
The FCC rulemaking proposes to allow a threatened LPFM to seek a second-adjacent channel waiver when a full-power station changes its community of license and the move-in threatens the LPFM’s signal. The waivers could only be used if there were no other available frequency for the LPFM.
In cases where no alternative channel exists for an LPFM — and it broadcasts at least eight hours of local programming a day— the commission reserves the right to reject the full-power broadcaster’s signal expansion. “We emphasize that we will dismiss a community of license modification proposal only when no technically reasonable accommodation is available and the LPFM makes the requisite waiver showing,” the commission said in its most recent LPFM report and order, MM Docket No. 99-25.
In an accompanying notice of proposed rulemaking, the commission asked for feedback on additional provisions in its waiver procedures. It asked, for instance, whether full-power stations should be required to provide financial and technical assistance to LPFMs affected by their signal expansion.
“This is in a limited set of circumstances,” said Pete Tridish, founder of Prometheus Radio Project, an LPFM advocacy group. “If a station gets displaced from its original channel, the LPFM can go on a second-adjacent channel if they can demonstrate that it’s a nonpopulated zone,” typically a distance of 50 to 100 meters in a rural environment. “The LPFM would have to make a full engineering showing, and the full-power station has the opportunity to respond.”
“This is not because the LPFM decided to have a picnic on someone else’s channel,” Tridish added. “It’s because the other station is moving in.”
NPR opposes the commission’s proposed solution, arguing that it could be triggered by any service modifications a full-power station requests from the FCC. In addition, the network said, the commission fails to consider “the cumulative impact of multiple LPFM station transmitters operating within a full-power station’s principal service area.”
NPR government relations chief Mike Riksen was not available for an interview last week, but months ago he told Current that the encroachment problems the FCC is trying to address haven’t affected public radio yet. “We don’t know of any problems with existing [LPFM] stations” interfering with a public radio signal, he said after the FCC unveiled its plan to bolster LPFM.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t become a problem in the future. “We know there are not a lot of low-power stations out there in relation to how many could be if third-adjacency protections were lifted,” Riksen said. “We are really concerned about how many would come into creation when third-power adjacencies are eliminated entirely.”
Softer stance on translators
The commission also seeks remedies to the mess created by its 2003 filing window for FM translators. More than 7,000 applications for frequencies, including many speculative bids by religious broadcasters, are still pending five years after Auction No. 83.
Low-power advocates say the botched auction tied up spectrum that could have been allocated to new low-power stations. They’ve been lobbying the commission to even the playing field by limiting the number of pending translator applications it will consider from any single full-power broadcaster.
The commission responded by moving retroactively to consider no more than 10 translator bids per applicant, but it placed that policy on hold last month after receiving several petitions challenging it.
Regardless of what happens with the 2003 applications, LPFM advocates want the FCC to give them more leverage in securing frequencies. The FCC agrees and proposes to let LPFMs use contour-based engineering methodologies — taking terrain into account — when they apply for licenses. At present, LPFM locations can be nixed if they’re too close to another transmitter both in mileage and frequency, even where steep terrain would prevent interference.
In addition, LPFM advocates proposed to limit the number of translators a full-power broadcaster can apply for or operate and retain priority status over a low-power station. This proposal, which the commission sought reactions to in its rulemaking notice, is a big point of contention for pubradio stations, some of which operate dozens of repeater stations across a region or a whole state.
The proposal could provoke brawls over channels among the broadcasters at the bottom of the FCC’s licensing hierarchy. Under current policy, translators and LPFMs have the same lowly status. The first station to apply for its frequency is protected from subsequent applications for that channel by LPFM or translator services.
“At Prometheus we think there needs to be some sort of reconfiguration in the way that translators and LPFM services are allocated,” Tridish said. He acknowledges the public service value of extending a public radio signal via translator networks but thinks many full-power broadcasters are being greedy.
“If you have 25 or 50 or 2,500 translators, that’s preposterous,” Tridish said. “Why does anyone need to repeat their signal 2,500 times, and a local group is told there are no channels available?”
Prometheus once advocated capping at 25 the number of translators for which a full-power broadcaster could claim primary status — permitting it to bump an LPFM. But the group’s latest FCC filing, filed last month, refines its proposal to take aim at huge networks, such as religious radio chains, with expansion ambitions bigger than pubradio’s. Full-power broadcasters in any of Arbitron’s top 300 markets could operate as many as 10 translators with primary status over LPFM in a single market; additional translators in that market would be secondary to LPFM.
The proposal basically creates a new rung in the hierarchy. “You [could] own as many translators as you want outside of those markets, which is the point of translators,” Tridish said.
“I don’t think that public radio has much to lose by such a proposal,” Tridish said. Even public radio’s state networks, which rely on translators to provide service in rural areas, would not be hurt by the proposal, he contended. “It is very rare to have enough of the top markets inside your state that you’d have a problem with the cap,” Tridish said.
But NPR took issue with Prometheus’s latest proposal in reply comments April 21, writing that it “appears skewed towards replacing FM translator stations in more populous areas.”
“Even accounting for the focus on Arbitron markets, a limit of 10 translator stations . . . will likely result in the loss of existing services on which many people rely for the promise of a service that may appeal to very few people,” NPR wrote.
Web page posted May 19, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC