In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that analog FM translators can rebroadcast the signal of a HD digital multicast channel from a commonly owned FM station. For months, broadcasters have been introducing "new" FM stations to their communities via translators rebroadcasting HD-2 signals which are broadcast digitally on a primary FM station, and available only to those who have purchased HD radio receivers. In the decision that was just released, the Commission’s staff rejected an objection to the use of an FM translator taking a signal that can only be heard on a digital HD Radio and turning it into an analog signal capable of being received on any FM receiver. In this case, the broadcaster rebroadcast his AM station on the FM HD station so that it could then be rebroadcast on the FM translator. But, even if the HD multicast channel was a totally independent station that could otherwise only be heard on an HD digital radio, it could be rebroadcast on the FM translator and received by anyone with an FM radio in the limited area served by the translator station.
The Commission did make clear, however, that a broadcaster cannot use another station owner’s HD multicast channel and rebroadcast that on a translator if the broadcaster already owned the maximum number of stations allowed by the multiple ownership rules. In other words, if a broadcaster is allowed by the multiple ownership rules to own 4 FM stations in a market, it could put a fifth (low power) FM signal in that market through the use of an FM translator rebroadcasting one of its own HD multicast signals. However, if it had not itself converted its FM stations to digital so that it had its own multicast abilities, it could not do a time brokerage agreement and program the multicast signal of another broadcaster in town who had installed the digital equipment needed to do such multicasts. An LMA or time brokerage agreement with another station for use of an HD multicast channel counts for multiple ownership purposes in the same way that such a programming agreement would if it provided for programming of a primary analog FM station.
This decision, together with the recent decision (summarized here) to allow AM stations to rebroadcast their signal on FM translators, opens the possibility of many more vibrant outlets for local expression from signals that otherwise have limited reach in communities where there are translators making such operations possible. Watch for more broadcasters taking advantage of these opportunities in the future.