The FCC’s proposals for aiding AM radio have been released in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – one of the last actions for broadcasters under Acting FCC Chairman Mignon Clyburn (see our article here on the leftover broadcast issues with which her successor as chairman, Tom Wheeler, will have to deal).  The proposals for revitalizing the AM band that were contained in the NPRM are all ones that the Acting Chair had previewed at the NAB Radio Show, which we summarized in our article about that speech.  While the general proposals that were made in the NPRM were not surprising, in most of these areas there were a couple of surprises in the details – some of which will may be of concern to some broadcasters.

The Commission made several proposals, including the following:

  • A special FM translator window where applications would be restricted to AM licensees.
  • Reduction of both daytime and nighttime city-grade coverage obligations of existing AM stations.
  • Elimination of the ratchet rule that requires that any AM station making facilities changes do so in a way that reduces overall interference in the AM band (in many cases compelling a reduction of service if a change is proposed)
  • The potential for more liberal use of MDCL technologies, which decrease transmitter power when modulation of the station decrease, potentially saving power (though raising some questions about the robustness of the signal that will result)
  • The modification of AM efficiency standards in some way to allow for shorter towers that could be located on rooftops or in other more limited spaces – though the Commission asked for more comments on how its current rules actually limited such uses
  • A general request for other ideas that could help AM stations.

We will cover the special translator window in today’s post, and cover the other issues in more detail in the future.  Most of the other proposals deal with making facilities changes to the AM station, in some cases changes that might actually decrease service to their current service areas (e.g. were some stations to take advantage of the proposed city-coverage limitation to move further from the station’s city of license).  The translator proposal is the one most likely to bring the most relief to the most AM broadcasters in the heart of their service area – and is one that can be quickly implemented.  So below, we will look at the translator proposal in more detail. 

Special Window for AM Stations to Apply for FM Translators

The FCC proposes to hold a special window in which AM station licensees – and only AM licensees – could file for FM translators free of competition from other applicants that might want to use translators to rebroadcast FM services.  But this proposal comes with limits.  First, the Commission proposes that would be a limit of one translator application per AM station.  Second, the NPRM proposes that the translators granted as a result of this window would be tied to the AM station permanently. These translators could not later be repurposed to rebroadcast an FM service or another AM station.

But what was perhaps most surprising was the discussion of Mattoon waivers in the decision.  We wrote about these waivers when they were first adopted, as they seemed to be a way for the Commission to allow the movement of FM translators to markets where they are most wanted without having to use the multiple hops that some broadcasters had previously used.  The Mattoon waiver allowed a translator to be moved to any site where the interfering contour from the current site would overlap the protected contour of the new site – in other words, it allowed movement to any site at which another translator could not operate because of interference from the existing license.  Without the waiver, a translator could only be moved to a location where the current and future protected 1 mv/m service contours overlapped – making moves much more limited.

In the NPRM, the Commission suggests that Mattoon waivers may no longer be necessary because of the translator filing window that it is proposing, and asks for comment on the proposal to cease the use of the Mattoon waiver.  The suggestion is that the translators that result from the window may resolve the needs of most AM stations.  It is our observation that this may not be correct, as many AM stations already have discovered that, to fully replicate their AM service, they need multiple translators.  Thus, despite the welcome proposal for a one-per-customer translator filing window, some AM licensees might still be inclined to find other existing translators for use with their AMs and move them into the market, perhaps through a Mattoon waiver. If adopted, the Commission’s proposal might slow or otherwise restrict such translator moves.

One of the reasons for the Mattoon waiver was that it allowed for simpler and more efficient application processing, both for the applicants and the FCC.  If an applicant can file one application to move to a desired site (a site at which no other translator could be built on the same frequency because of the interference from the licensed translator facilities), the applicant can accomplish that move quickly, and the FCC need only process one application.  In the past, the applicant might have to waste its resources, and those of the Commission, filing multiple applications to “hop” a translator from its current site to its desired site – and the applicant would have to spend the time and money to build the translator at each of the intermediate hops.  The waiver benefits the applicants and the FCC, by getting translators to where they can be most efficiently used, in the most efficient manner possible, and many applicants have used them.

But the Commission seems to already be cracking down on the use of the Mattoon waiver.  On the day before the AM NPRM was introduced, the Media Bureau issued an order denying an FM translator move using the Mattoon waiver – determining that the waiver policy was meant only for translators used by AM stations, even though the Commission had previously granted Mattoon waivers to translators that would rebroadcast FM facilities.  By this decision, the FCC has stopped the use of the waivers by FM applicants. (In the interests of full disclosure, I represented the applicant whose application was denied). 

Seemingly, the FCC is looking to save FM spectrum for AM users, and possibly for LPFMs as proposed in some future window.  In the NPRM, the Commission asks how an AM licensee-only window would impact other translator users, and how it would impact LPFM opportunities.  Look for comments on this issue.

AM licensees interested in new FM translators but unable to find any existing ones should watch this proceeding carefully, and make their views known when the comment date for this NPRM is announced.