A few weeks ago, we wrote about the most immediate part of the FCC’s plan for the revitalization of AM radio – providing more FM translators for AM stations.  As the FCC has just announced the deadline dates for the filing of public comments on the reform proposals, setting the comment deadline for January 21 and the reply comment deadline on February 18, we thought that it was time to return to the subject to address some of the FCC’s other proposals.  As we mentioned in passing in our last article, the other proposals do not address any fundamental change in the AM service or anything that will necessarily help to overcome the interference issues that have made life difficult for many AM stations in an urban environment.  Instead, they look at ways to make current AM station operations easier.  In some ways, the order almost looks to be looking for ways to stem the loss of AM stations until a long-term  solution for the saving the service can be devised.

Revitalizing AM radio is not easy.  As the oldest radio service, the very things that made it attractive to the early days of radio – being able to reach vast areas of the country – now create problems.  The fact that AM stations have “skywave” signals that bounce off the atmosphere and travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, especially at night, also mean that their signals interfere with other stations on the same frequencies thousands of miles from their transmitter sites.  And, as more and more electronic “noise” has entered the environment, from relatively new technologies including florescent light bulbs to garage door openers and other wireless remote control devices, AM signals have proved to be especially susceptible to interference from these sources, especially in urban environments.  These problems are difficult to address without fundamental changes in the service.  But some quick fixes are possible to address more short-term needs of AM operators, and these are the kinds of issues addressed in the new rulemaking.

The first set of proposals deal with the required signal coverage of a station’s city of license.  As property prices in urban America have increased, many AM stations have found that the value of the land on which their towers sit may exceed the value of their FCC license.  But, because of current requirements that certain levels of signal be maintained over the station’s city of license, a sale of the transmitter site might be a death sentence to the station, as it is difficult to find suitable and affordable replacement sites near to the urban core.  Two of the FCC’s proposal directly address this problem by lowering the required signal strength for AM stations in their cities of license.

For daytime coverage, the rules currently require that stations maintain a 5 mv/m signal over 80% of their city of license.  The NPRM suggests that the obligation be changed so that only 50% of the city of license needs to be covered by that level of signal.  At night, stations must provide 80% of their cities of license with either a 5 mv/m signal or a nighttime interference free signal.  The FCC proposes to eliminate the nighttime coverage obligation altogether for existing stations.

However, the FCC does not propose that either of these rules be applied to new AM stations.  If a party wants to build a new AM station, or make a city of license change for an existing station, under the FCC’s proposal it would have to meet the old service levels to its proposed new city of license (though the FCC does ask for comments on whether, for any station, nighttime coverage obligations are necessary). 

Similarly, the FCC proposes to eliminate the “ratchet rule.”  That rule requires that AM broadcasters seeking to make a modification in their facilities demonstrate that they will be “ratcheting” down skywave interference to other stations.  The rule was adopted to lessen interference in the AM band, but has had the effect of precluding AM stations from improving their signals, as there is often no way to modify the facilities of a station and comply with the ratchet rule without having to reduce overall power of the station.  Thus, the Commission proposes to eliminate the rule.

The FCC also addressed something called Modulation Dependent Carrier Level (“MDCL”) technologies.  These systems reduce an AM station’s power in synchronization with the modulation level of the programming – reducing power either when the programming passages are louder or softer, depending on the algorithm being used.  The Commission proposes to allow this technology to be used without waiver, which could reduce AM operating costs by reducing electrical bills, one company claiming as much as a 35% savings through the use of its equipment.  The FCC asks whether this technology will affect the signals of stations – either in analog or hybrid digital modes.

The final area of inquiry is whether the FCC needs to change antenna efficiency standards. According to the FCC’s discussions, some parties have suggested that the current rules make it hard to use short AM antennas that can be mounted on buildings and in small spaces, as the rules were designed for taller towers with extensive buried ground systems.  The FCC asks which of its rules impede the use of these smaller towers, and whether how the rules should be changed to accommodate these towers.

In closing, the FCC asks for comments on other ideas for improving the AM radio service, recognizing that additional ideas will involve more fundamental restructuring of the service, and will take more time and study.  The FCC asks for any ideas that it should investigate further, including the following:

  • ·         changes to nighttime skywave protection for Class A AM stations;
  • ·         adopting rules to permit the permanent licensing of AM synchronous transmission systems;
  • ·         permitting or requiring stations to convert to all- digital AM operation; and
  • ·         modification of the pre-sunrise / post-sunset AM operating rules. 

The FCC did not list the idea advanced in other proceedings, on which the FCC has already received comment, of moving stations on the AM band to TV channels 5 and 6 (adjacent to the current FM band and used for FM in Asia).  This idea (about which we have written many times, see for instance our articlehere ) seems to be on hold – perhaps permanently, while the issues about the repacking of the television band is considered during the deliberations about the TV incentive auctions.

Obviously, as the FCC is just asking for initial comments on these additional ideas for more fundamental cahnges in the AM service, a further notice of proposed rulemaking will be required before any changes are made – and that will require a whole new set of comments and a much longer time horizon before any such changes could be implemented.  But, for AM licensees, this important proceeding demands attention for the short-term fixes that it proposes, and broadcasters should prepare to file their comments by the deadline date – providing as much detail as possible to convince the FCC to make long-needed changes to its AM rules.