The FCC late today released its long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to allow FM translators to rebroadcast the signal of AM stations – and potentially to originate programming during those nighttime hours when a daytime-only AM station is not permitted to operate.  The proposal is to permit AM stations to operate FM translators in an area that is the lesser of a circle 25 miles from their transmitter site or within their 2 mv/m daytime service contour.  In proposing the changes in its rules, the Commission raised a number of questions on which it seeks public comment.   These include the following:

  • Is allowing the rebroadcast of AM stations on FM translators in the public interest?  What would its impact be on other stations including AM and FM stations, as well as LPFM stations?
  • How many translators should each AM station be permitted?
  • Should daytime-only AM stations be allowed to originate programming on an FM translator during hours when they have no programming to rebroadcast?
  • Should the FCC permit AM stations to begin operating translators all at once – or should the use of these translators be phased in – perhaps permitting daytimers or stations with minimal nighttime power to operate translators first for some transitional period.
  • Should there be a restriction on an AM station’s use of an FM translator if the AM is co-owned with an FM station in the same market?
  • Can an AM station "broker" time on a translator to provide the type of service proposed in this proceeding?

In addition to these operational issues, the FCC poses a few technical issues about these operations.  These include:

  • Should any extension beyond the 2 mv/m contour be permitted?  If so, how much and in what circumstances?
  • How should the 2 mv/m contour be calculated – using standard FCC predictions, or allowing the measurement of the actual reach of that signal?
  • Should the 25 mile zone be extended to 35 miles in Zone II (essentially the less populated areas of the country)?

Comments on the Notice will be due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, with replies due 30 days later.

The Notice summarizes the preliminary comments filed in the proceeding, noting that LPFM supporters opposed the proposal as it would create a new competitor for the use of the FM spectrum.  Some concern was apparently also voiced by public radio operators, who felt that other FM interference issues, and issues concerning the use of translators generally, should be resolved before this proceeding is concluded.  So, even though the FCC has tentatively proposed the adoption of these rules, there will be opposition, and broadcasters will need to make a good case for these proposals to ultimately be adopted.

AM station operators should carefully consider the issues raised by the FCC in this proceeding, to make sure that they permit uses that will really assist them in their operations.  For instance, some AM operators of stations with significant directional patterns have looked at FM translators as a means to fill in the nulls in their patterns.  But if the signal of the translator cannot extend the 2 mv/m contour of the AM station, this proposal may not provide a remedy to the problems of these directional stations. 

It is also important to note that the proposals do not suggest any sort of preference for AM operators in obtaining FM translators, or any sort of guarantee that FM translators will be available for use by all AM operators.  Thus, this proposal should not be viewed as a panacea for all AM stations, as there may be areas where there are simply no translators available for use by AM stations.

Nevertheless, the proposal does offer some potential assistance to operators of AM stations.  Thus, broadcasters interested in the potential that these translators offer should prepare comments addressing the issues raised by the FCC, and urging the adoption of proposals that would advance their interests, and that of the listening public.