FCC's Proposals for Clearing FM Translator Application Backlog May Harm AM Stations
Approximately 6,500 applications for new FM translator service have languished since 2003, with each application representing a potential missed opportunity to enhance local service to the public. Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission announced a new notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comments on how to reduce the backlog. Unfortunately, the FCC advocates throwing out many applications instead of expediting their processing. Even worse, the FCC has imposed a freeze on the processing of applications for existing translator stations seeking to serve urban markets.
The 6,500 translator applications have caused friction among proponents of FM translator and LPFM stations. Translator applicants are frustrated by the FCC’s processing delays, while LPFM proponents are concerned that granting these applications will preclude the licensing of future LPFM stations, especially in larger markets. Further complicating the matter: a substantial number of the pending applications were filed by two affiliated applicants; Radio Assist Ministries and Edgewater Broadcasting.
Prior FCC action has focused on balancing the competing concerns of the translator and LPFM factions. In 2007, the FCC adopted a cap preventing applicants from filing more than 10 applications in any application filing window. Applying the cap to the translator applications would require dismissal of 80 percent of the applications.
The FCC seeks public comment on its conclusion that the 10 application cap is inconsistent with the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (“LCRA”), which became law in January 2011. The LCRA repealed the requirement that LPFM stations operating on the third adjacent channel to a full-power station must provide interference protection to that station. The LCRA also assigns a co-equal status to translators, booster stations and LPFM stations. The FCC also seeks comment on whether the FCC has authority to give priority to later-filed LPFM applications over a pending translator application, given the co-equal status under the LCRA. The FCC is not seeking comments on relaxing certain technical restrictions as required under the LCRA.
The FCC is considering several alternatives to address the competing concerns of translator and LPFM stations.
- Opening a joint translator/LPFM filing window. Under that proposal, the FCC would dismiss the pending translator applications and would open a new filing window for new translator and LPFM stations.
- Prioritizing future LPFM applications over the pending translator applications. The FCC is uncertain whether this proposal would satisfy the co-equal status set forth in the LCRA.
- Dismissing some of the pending translator applications for markets in which there are an insufficient number of LPFM channels as determined by the FCC.
The FCC proposes establishing LPFM channel “floors” based on market size. For example, all pending translator applications in Markets 1-20 would be dismissed if there are not at least eight available LPFM channels in the market. Lower LPFM channel floors would be established for markets 21-50, 51-100, 101-150 and smaller markets in which more than four translator applications are pending. The FCC’s analysis of the results for pending translator applications based on specific rated markets are available in Excel and PDF formats.
The FCC is suspending processing of any pending applications for existing FM translator stations that propose a first-time transmitter site within any market that has fewer LPFM channels than the proposed channel floor. The FCC also is imposing an immediate freeze on any new translator applications proposing a move into a new market.
The FCC remains concerned about the trafficking of authorizations granted for the translator applicants. The FCC seeks comments on what limitations can be imposed under the LCRA, including national application caps of 50 or 75 and local application caps.
Finally, the FCC is reconsidering its restriction on the use of FM translator stations to rebroadcast AM stations. At present, only FM translator stations with licenses or permits in effect by May 1, 2009 may rebroadcast the signal of an AM station. The FCC seeks comment on whether the May 1, 2009 limit should remain intact or should be extended to include the pending 6,500 translator applications.
The FCC’s approach, eliminating the 10-application cap and potentially increasing the number of FM translator stations that may rebroadcast AM stations, nevertheless contains several proposals that could halt the progress in providing programming to communities. More than 500 AM stations now use FM translator stations to rebroadcast their AM signals, making it possible to provide local news, information, sports and other programming (especially during evening hours for daytime-only AM stations) that otherwise might not be available. The proposed LPFM channel limitations undermine that progress. Even more troublesome is the immediate suspension of processing translator applications and the freeze on so-called market move-ins. To broadcast AM stations over FM translator stations, it is often necessary to move the translator station closer to the AM station. The freeze would make it extremely difficult to move translator stations to locations to rebroadcast AM stations, with the resultant diminution in service to the public.
All in all, while the FCC purports to balance the competing concerns of translator and LPFM stations, the FCC’s proposals actually give an advantage to LPFM, in part by failing to address the impact to AM stations that also rely on translator service.
Comments and Reply Comments must be filed within 30 days and 45 days after publication of the FCC's rulemaking proposal in the Federal Register.