In a recent speech before the Community Radio Conference, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn suggested that the proposal to reallocate Channels 5 and 6 for FM radio use had merit and should be considered further.  That proposal is already before the FCC, and ripe for decision – so it could theoretically be adopted tomorrow.  However, the proposal is not backed by all.  While Commissioner Clyburn may think that the idea bears more exploration, there seems to be significantly more consideration that is necessary before a decision on the pending proposals can be made.  What are these proposals, and what is standing in the way of a reallocation? 

As we have written before, the proposals have been made to take TV Channels 5 and 6, which are immediately adjacent to the FM band, and reallocate them to radio broadcasting.  The pending proposals include suggestions that LPFM stations could be located on the new FM channels that could be created, that new space for noncommercial radio operations could be created and, if they operated digitally, there would even be room to move the entire AM band to Channel 5.  While some have suggested that any relief from such a transition would be long in coming, as radios would need to be manufactured, in fact that process might not be as prolonged as suggested, as the frequencies used by these television channels are already used for FM radio in Asia.  Radios already exist that could pick up these channels (at least for analog reception).  However, television interests have opposed this reallotment, but it may well be the broadband plan which could have the greatest impact on the consideration of this issue. 

The initial objections to the reallotment of these channels to radio came essentially from two groups of television operators.  The first were those few full-power stations that were still operating, after the digital television transition, on these channels and either couldn’t move to another channel, or were unwilling to do so without getting paid.  The second group was low power television operators.  Many of these operators are using Channel 6 LPTV stations, which are still operating in an analog mode in many markets, as virtual radio stations, as FM receivers can pick up the audio of these stations.  While there will be an eventual transition of these stations to digital which will probably end their use as radio stations, the ultimate transition date has not yet been set.

But the recent proposal for the repurposing of some of the television spectrum for wireless broadband creates a whole new problem for the use of Channels 5 and 6 for FM radio. Those channels might well be needed for television if the FCC seriously forces TV to give up part of the UHF band that is currently used for DTV service.  While VHF channels, like 5 and 6, have proved to less than optimal for DTV use, and are not expected to be very good for mobile DTV, television users could be forced to use these channels were the FCC to follow up with its suggestions of taking some of the UHF channels for mobile broadband.  These issues are all interrelated – a change in the use of TV channels for broadband may down the road affect the growth of FM.  In short, while Commissioner Clyburn may think that the idea has merit – don’t look for it to be implemented anytime soon.