House panel endorses compromise that would add LPFM stations
A compromise in the long-running dispute over low-power FM stations has put more momentum behind the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, a bill that would largely remove channel-spacing rules that have blocked new LPFMs in urban areas.
But NPR, speaking for its full-power member stations, added a wrinkle to its position, suggesting that the FCC reimpose the spacing rules if and when digital HD Radio becomes the dominant radio technology.
The legislation, H.R. 1147, already would order the FCC to look at potential interference with the translators of full-power public radio stations when considering proposals for added LPFM signals.
With bipartisan support and the backing of the FCC, the bill was unanimously approved Oct. 15  by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and awaited a floor vote at Current’s deadline last week. The Senate Commerce Committee has yet to take up S. 592, the LPFM bill introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in March.
"A lot of the skeptics have been won over,” contributing to the bill’s momentum, according to Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project, the Philadelphia-based advocate for the class of noncommercial mini-stations.
Lawmakers who previously voted against LPFMs—Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), former chair of the House Commerce Committee — now support the legislation.
The bill includes several compromises crafted by the House committee with input from NPR and Prometheus. It would give special protection to stations operating radio reading services, and it would alter the process for documenting and resolving complaints of signal interference between LPFMs and full-power stations.
Signal interference protections have been a major point of contention since 2000, when the FCC first authorized the new class of LPFM stations. Compromises in the pending House bill, negotiated by staff of the House telecom subcommittee, bring NPR and Prometheus closer to resolving their differences. But they’re still wary that the other kind of FM will damage their own in the arenas both of policy-making and over-the-air broadcasts.
"NPR is grateful for the changes that were made to the House legislation and for the efforts of committee members, and especially their staff, to find workable solutions to the issues that we had and our differences of opinion,” said Mike Riksen, NPR v.p. for policy and representation. But he stopped short of endorsing the legislation and said NPR will lobby in the Senate for more amendments.
Third–adjacent-channel protections, the biggest sticking point in the dispute, prohibit FCC licensing of an LPFM station on a frequency within 600 kilohertz, or three FM channel clicks, of a full-power broadcaster. These rules were imposed by Congress in December 2001 at the behest of full-power broadcasters, including pubradio stations repped by NPR. An independent engineering study, released in 2003, concluded that the protection was not needed. NPR disputed the findings.
The third–adjacent-channel rules knocked more than 100 LPFM applicants out of the running, according to Carol Pierson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB is an ally with Prometheus and other media-reform groups in the LPFM movement—about 30 of the 800 operating LPFMs are NFCB members. “This bill opens the door for licensing of possibly hundreds of new stations,” Pierson said.
"NFCB’s position has been all along that we’re not really talking about any significant interference from LPFMs, and we haven’t sought the changes that NPR has,” she said. “We have wanted NPR to support LPFMs because we feel it’s so important to get new voices into the airwaves, particularly in urban areas.”
H.R. 1174 would allow licensing of LPFMs on third-adjacent channels except for when the nearest full-power station operates a radio reading service. It also protects translators and signal boosters delivering reading service broadcasts to outlying areas.
Effects on translators? And HD Radio?
The bill also would order the FCC to revisit its third–adjacent-channel protections on FM signals that feed translator stations. NPR wants to make sure that rules adequately protect the extensive network of translators that bring public radio to nearly 17 million potential listeners, NPR’s Riksen said. “We want to make sure that the FCC is paying attention to the possible interference to those signals,” he said.
Another provision added to the House bill shifts the responsibility for dealing with signal-interference problems when a low-power station is licensed on a third adjacent channel.
The low-power broadcaster must deal with all interference complaints within the protected contour of the affected broadcaster and is “encouraged” to address complaints to FM translators and boosters on third-adjacent channels, according to the House bill. The bill tells the commission to give the LPFM “technical flexibility” to resolve interference problems.
A new LPFM station in its first year also must air announcements advising its own listeners to report any signal interference, and it must notify the FCC and affected stations of all complaints.
The FCC will consider “informal evidence” of interference, including engineering studies commissioned by a station whose signal is disrupted.
“We are not afraid of a very, very stringent enforcement regime,” Tridish said. “All the studies show us that no interference occurs” between full-service and LPFM stations on third-adjacent channels.
The next battleground could be LPFM interference with digital HD Radio signals of full-power stations.
As the Senate takes up LPFM legislation, NPR expects to press for elimination of third-adjacent channel assignments for LPFMs when HD Radio becomes the primary means of delivering radio signals, Riksen said.
NPR had requested a study of the subject, according to Tridish, but the House committee didn’t add it to its bill. “To us, this was just preposterous,” he said. “LPFM has been held up for nine years as a result of studies requested by NPR.” A 1999 study conducted by iBiquity, the developer of HD Radio technology, addressed LPFM interference issues, as did the MITRE study that was commissioned by the FCC at the request of Congress.
NPR warned it will oppose licensing of LPFMs on frequencies closer to full-power stations than the third-adjacent. It will ask the Senate to restrict the FCC from licensing LPFMs on first- or second-adjacent channels, “except for extreme circumstances,” Riksen said.
“Low-power on first- and second-adjacent channels—that will make our blood pressure go up even more,” he said.
NPR and Prometheus met intermittently more than a year ago to negotiate a compromise, but those efforts appear to have completely dissolved, as Riksen and Tridish described the House committee’s negotiation process.
The House committee staff crafted the language in its bill, shuttling between NPR and Prometheus. “NPR got what it needed, but not what some station managers might want, which is for us to go away and die under a rock somewhere,” Tridish said.
“I look at the whole thing and see a lot of valuable opportunities being missed by public radio,” Tridish said. “The media reform groups that should be fighting for expanded funding for public broadcasting and protections for journalism — they’re working with us and fighting public radio.”
Although many pubcasters have befriended LPFM broadcasters over the years, they are still concerned about what will happen when the new stations move into areas where signals and population are packed more densely, according to John Crigler, a communications attorney who represents many community radio stations and was involved in some of the early deliberations over LPFM build-out.
The FCC has “tried to cut the low-powers some breaks, and there have been some trade-offs” that make pubcasters nervous, he said. “Because of the economy, no one can stand to lose a single listener,” especially public stations.
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Web page posted Oct. 29, 2009
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