On September 26, the FCC will hold its next open meeting and, according to a Public Notice released Friday, will consider several issues important to different parts of the broadcast industry. For television broadcasters, there will be concerns about the proposal to do away with the “UHF discount,” which gives UHF stations a 50% discount in determining the number of households they reach when determining an owner’s compliance with the limitation that prevents any one company from owning television stations that reach more than 39% of the US television households. For radio, the FCC will be getting a report on the preparations for the upcoming LPFM window, allowing applications nationwide for new LPFM stations. That window, as we have written before, is to open from October 15-29. Finally, the FCC will be looking at modifications to its Antenna Structure Registration process - which could be important to all tower owners.
As the UHF discount issue is to be considered by the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it is no doubt the more controversial of the broadcast issues to be discussed at the meeting. The discount was adopted by the FCC in analog days, when UHF broadcasters faced significant disadvantages. Analog UHF signals (TV channels 14 and above) simply did not travel as far as VHF signals, were less likely to penetrate buildings (especially as many over-the-air antennas were designed for VHF reception), and were far more costly than VHF operations (as VHF transmitters operated at far lower power levels than do transmitters for UHF operations). But, in the digital world, broadcasters found that the world had been turned on its end – with UHF signals being far preferable, as the VHF digital signal was found to be far more susceptible to interference, especially in urban areas. In the less forgiving digital environment (where a signal is either there or not, instead of the degraded "snowy" picture that you could get in the analog world), the UHF signal is generally preferred – despite the higher power costs and the fact that the signals still don’t travel as far.
So the Commission is looking to adjust the rules to what seem to be the current preferences, but there are many issues in such a proposal – including how to apply any change to broadcast groups that would be over the limit if the discount disappeared. When would that grandfathering apply? Groups already over the limit would seemingly be grandfathered – but how about those that have recently done deals in expectation that the discount would be in place? Should these deals be grandfathered as well? After all, the issue has not been addressed in the 4 years since the digital transition became a reality, and it would seem that ownership groups that have expended money and committed to transactions before any NPRM should not be penalized for relying on the rules as they currently are. This is especially true as the adoption of an NPRM is just a proposal – not an actual rule. Proposals that are currently pending can’t be left in limbo while public comments are filed and the Commission considers these deals. But the decision will be made by the FCC, so It will be interesting to watch these issues play out at the FCC meeting later this month.
The report on the LPFM window will apparently be just a report – not an action item, as preparations are already underway for the window. It will be interesting to see if the FCC does address some of the concerns expressed by translator applicants who, while in the middle of a settlement window trying to resolve mutually exclusive applications that are 10 years old, were told that the October LPFM applications would have precedence over any changes made to their 10 year old applications – even changes proposed 3 months before the LPFM window, in the context of the translator settlement window. With some of the other considerations that we wrote about here, the LPFM window should otherwise be a relatively straightforward affair, as least for the initial filings. The real questions may be in the aftermath, when we will see whether new LPFM stations, especially those seeking second-adjacent channel interference waivers, will create interference issues with full-power stations.
The final issue on the agenda of potential interest to broadcasters is the consideration of modifications to the Antenna Structure Registration process, the process by which tower owners register their towers with the FCC. That registration process involves both the need for FAA approval, and certifications as to environmental considerations. While the proposal is couched as being adopted to facilitate the deployment of wireless facilities, any change to the ASR process could affect broadcast tower owners too. The questions posed seem to relate to environmental considerations, and how to speed what can sometimes become a lengthy process. Perhaps a sleeper issue to be watched by broadcasters?
It should be a very interesting meeting – broadcasters pay attention!