The Local Community Radio Act has been pending in Congress, ready to be approved for many months, but held up by the Senate.  This weekend, as the Congressional term was drawing to a close, both the House and the Senate approved a bill modifying the interference standards for Low Power FM radio stations, opening the possibility that more channels will be available for LPFM use when the next window for filing new LPFM applications opens. However, this bill is substantially modified from the LPFM bill that was just passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year (see our summary of the House version of the bill). The NAB has been working with the LPFM advocates to adopt a bill with substantially more protections for full-power stations, while still allowing LPFMs to locate on channels third adjacent to full power stations. The bill passed by Congress and soon to be signed by the President makes substantial changes to the original House version, and seemingly provides many such protections. Specifically, the final legislation is different from the old bill in many ways including:

  • It does away with all the introductory language in the original House bill that contained many Congressional findings about the value of LPFM stations, language that could have been used to justify FCC actions in the future that would be unfavorable to the interests of full-power stations. 
  • It specifically forbids the FCC from amending the distance requirements between LPFM and full-power stations for first and second adjacent channel operations.  It does allow for waivers of these separations, but requires LPFMs to cease operations if complaints of interference to a full-power station are received.
  • It makes clear that LPFM stations are secondary to full power stations, both as they currently exist and as they may be modified in the future. 
  • The law specifically requires that the FCC treat LPFM and FM translators and FM boosters as being equal in status, and secondary to full-power stations (both existing and modified full-power stations) – thus seemingly ending some of the LPFM proposals that would allow LPFM stations to preempt existing FM translators.
  • For LPFMs that are located at less than the full distance from a full-power station set out by the LPFM rules, even on a third adjacent channel, the LPFM must provide the same protections that translators give to other stations under Section 74.1203, which includes the requirement that a new secondary station (like a translator or LPFM) cease operations if it interferes with the reception of any regularly used FM signal (even if the signal is outside of the existing station’s primary service contour)
  • The bill adds a provision to protect stations in certain densely populated states (principally if not exclusively New Jersey) by imposing the translator interference rules on LPFM stations (seemingly the same provision as provided for stations in other states when the LPFM is operated at less than the current spacings. 

This bill does contain some provisions that are not entirely clear, and in some cases, provisions that seem a bit contradictory. These issues will no doubt be sorted out by the FCC, and potentially by Congress itself, in the future. 

But with the principal established that LPFMs can be treated more like translators for purposes of interference, the way may be paved for resolution of many of the long-delayed proceedings involving LPFM stations and FM translators, including potentially resolution of the status of the thousands of FM translator applications still on file from the 2003 window. While anxious applicants should not look for such a resolution overnight, the status of translators and LPFM stations is now clearer than it was, and some of the basic issues that had delayed processing of these applications have been resolved.  But other issues remain, as LPFM advocates are still concerned with the number of potential translators that could be granted, which they fear could preempt potential new LPFM service in some areas.   Translator applicants with many pending applications are worried about what will happen to those applications, and whether they will be able to timely provide service to the areas that would be served by these new stations.  So, while issues remain to be resolved, the passage of the bill should result in action some action in the not too distant future.