Last week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was quoted in several trade press reports as having told the House Small Business Committee that his office was working on an item to be circulated among the other commissioners that would ensure low power FM ("LPFM") stations "would have reasonable access to limited radio spectrum." So what does this mean? As we wrote recently, the FCC seems to be delaying the processing of some applications for modifications of full-power FM stations because those applications would create interference which would knock an LPFM station off the air. The FCC is currently looking for ways to preserve the LPFM. We’ve expressed concerns that this action could be a precursor to the resolution of a pending rulemaking proceeding which asks whether the protection of LPFM stations by new full power stations or ones seeking upgrades should be mandatory. Could the Chairman’s statements provide an indication of where that proceeding is going? If so, it would be bad news for full-power FM stations.
The adoption of such an order would also raise questions of how the FCC will deal with conflicts between LPFM stations and translators. The same proceeding that asked whether LPFM stations should be protected from increases in power by full-power stations also asked whether LPFM should have a preference over FM translators, even suggesting that a new LPFM could knock an FM translator off the air. Given the broad investment across the country in translators and the unique service that they provide in both rural and more urban areas, often importing unique noncommercial channels, would the additional localism provided by LPFM justify the change in FCC policy? We may well see how the FCC balances these competing interests in the near future.