Determining how much interference to full-power FM stations is acceptable from LPFM stations is perhaps, in the long run, one of the most important issues discussed in the FCC’s two orders released two weeks ago clarifying the rules for LPFM stations.  The FCC’s proposals on this issue, and several others, has now been published in the Federal Register, asking for public comments by May 7, with reply comments due May 21.   As we detailed when we wrote about the proposals that have now been published in the Federal Register, while the FCC did away with strict mileage limitations on third-adjacent channel spacings between LPFM stations and full-power FMs as required by the Local Community Radio Act ("LCRA"), it did not totally eliminate all interference requirements.  Instead, it proposed a two-tier system requiring more remediation efforts by LPFMs that operate at less than what had been the required spacings, and lesser interference for stations that did observe the old mileage separations.  The May 7 comment deadline also applies to comments on the FCC’s proposals for second-adjacent channel waivers of the required spacings between LPFMs and full-power FM stations, and on changes to the service rules for LPFMs – including allowing them to operate at powers as high as 250 watts ERP in rural areas.

The ruling eliminating the third-adjacent channel spacing rule as required by the LCRA was published in the Federal Register yesterday, meaning that the rule becomes effective on June 4, but practically that should mean little until the FCC addresses the interference-complaint resolution issues addressed in the Further NPRM.  The abolition of the third adjacent channel spacing rules did leave in place one limitation, that LPFM stations cannot cause more interference than they can under present rules for stations that offer reading services for the blind

The Further NPRM also addresses second adjacent channel interference, proposing very strict rules that require an LPFM to cease operations if it creates any interference to a regularly used FM signal – even outside of the full-power station’s protected service contours.  This is essentially the FM translator interference requirement – which has, in the past, caused many translators to cease operations or change their technical facilities to protect full-power stations.  Further details on this proposal are available in our summary of the order.  That summary, however, did not address the proposed changes in the LPFM service rules, which we address below.

The FCC asks for comments on a number of proposals to revise the LPFM service rules.  Some of the more significant changes proposed by the Commission include:

  • The FCC proposes to do away with the Class of 10 watt LPFM stations. While the FCC’s rules provide for such stations, the Commission has never opened a filing window for these stations. As their power and coverage would be so limited and this class of station has never been authorized, the FCC proposes its abolition.
  • At the same time, the FCC suggests that it might authorize LPFM stations to operate with as much as 250 watts effective radiated power in more rural areas. The FCC seeks comments on whether this higher power should be permitted and, if so, in what areas. The FCC suggests that the 250 watt power limit should be adopted only in areas outside of the Top 100 markets
  • The FCC also proposes to remove all restrictions on IF interference for LPFM stations operating with less than 100 watts of power. This mirrors the rules for FM translators and Class D stations.

On LPFM eligibility issues, the FCC proposes:

  • A clarification of the requirement that LPFMs be operated by local organizations, by making clear that this is a continuing obligation, not just one that applies when a station is first constructed
  • A proposal to expand the criteria of entities eligible for LPFM licenses to include Native American Nations
  • A proposal to allow LPFM operators to operate FM translators to expand their service – asking where such translators should be allowed and how much they can extend the service of an LPFM station
  • A proposal that Native Nations be allowed to operate multiple LPFM stations to provide broader coverage over reservations and other native territories

The Commission also suggested changes in the procedure for awarding new LPFM stations. These changes would amend the "points" given for certain criteria – points that are added up to determine which mutually exclusive application should be granted. The Commission also proposed amendments to its share-time obligations for applicants who remain tied after a point system analysis.

All-in all, this will be a very important proceeding for FM broadcasters seeking to protect the integrity of the FM spectrum.  Especially in spectrum-congested metropolitan areas, allowing second-adjacent channel short-spacings between full-power and low power FM stations has the opportunity to make spectrum congestion more acute, and radio reception more prone to interference.  And, as we wrote last week, the potential for an LPFM operator to have to cease operations because of such interference could be disastrous to a nonprofit organization that raises funds to operate a station that has to shut down.  In crafting its rules, the FCC will need to be careful to restraint the exuberance of potential LPFM applicants who may want to push any relaxation of interference rules to their limits.  File your comments on these important issues by the May 7 deadline.