A decision released by the FCC’s Media Bureau staff this week makes clear that the permittee of a noncommercial station, who was awarded the permit based on a 307(b) preference, cannot change transmitter sites so as to abandon service to the area that it promised to cover in order to get the preference – even if it proposes to cover an equivalent amount of underserved area from its new transmitter site. In addition, the decision held that the change in transmitter site was not justified even though the underserved area that had existed at the time the construction permit was granted no longer existed. Other stations had changed their facilities since the date of the construction permit’s grant, and now provided coverage to the area that had been underserved at the time of the grant. The Commission said that the coverage promises made by an applicant, and on which the permit was conditioned, were a snapshot in time that could not be changed even after the grant. The decision should serve as a reminder to all the noncommercial applicants with applications that are now pending or to be filed in the next noncommercial window (whenever that may be) that they should not propose a technical facility in order to win a construction permit on 307(b) grounds if they can’t really construct the station at the site they propose, as they may well be stuck with it – and forfeit the permit if they can’t build the station in the way that they promised.
One wonders if a decision like this one will be appealed. While there is no question that an applicant who makes promises that lead to the award of a permit should be held to those promises (to do otherwise would undermine the system), is it really in the public interest to hold the applicant to these promises in such a way so as to ignore reality? If the underserved area that the applicant had promised to serve is no longer underserved, and some new underserved area that would have resulted in the applicant receiving the same preference is to be served by the modified proposal, isn’t the public better off getting service to these truly underserved areas? We will have to watch this case to see what develops.