The FCC’s Media Bureau gave a long-awaited Christmas present to many of the country’s AM stations, releasing a Public Notice announcing the filing dates for the translator modification application filing windows for AM stations.  These are the windows authorized by the Commission as part of its AM Revitalization proceeding (see our article here for more about the FCC decision to open these windows).  In these windows, the FCC will allow an AM licensee to buy or arrange to program an FM translator and move it up to 250 miles to a location from which it can be used to rebroadcast an AM station.  In making such a site move, the applicant can also change the translator’s channel to specify operations on any vacant frequency in the area where the AM station wants to operate that translator that will not cause interference to existing broadcasters.  However, applications will only be accepted to move translators or translator construction permits in the commercial part of the FM band, 92.1 MHz (Channel 221) and above.

Initially, there will be two windows.  The first window will open January 29, 2016 and close at 11:59 pm (EDT) on July 28, 2016.  This window can be used by Class C and Class D AM stations to seek to move an FM translator for use by those stations.

The second window will open on July 29, 2016 and close at 5:59 pm (EDT) on October 31, 2016.  Any AM station can file an application during that window. 

It is important to file early, as applications in the window will be filed on a first come, first served basis.  That means that, if there are limited open FM channels in any market, the first AM station that obtains a translator and files for an open channel gets it.  If two applications are filed for the same channel in the same area on the same day, they will be considered mutually exclusive.  That mutual exclusivity can be resolved by an engineering amendment; if none is filed, those applications will eventually be resolved possibly through an auction.

Only one translator application can be filed by any AM station.  The Commission makes clear in its Public Notice that applicants need to get their applications right, as if an application is dismissed by the FCC, or the deal to buy the translator falls apart, the AM station will not get a second chance – it cannot file another application where it is listed as the primary station of a translator seeking to use the 250 mile waiver.

Basically, to participate, an AM licensee needs to do two things.  It needs to make sure that there is a frequency in its market on which a new translator can be located without creating interference to any existing FM station, FM translator or LPFM station.  Then it needs to find a translator within 250 miles that can be “moved” to the area that the AM licensee wants to serve.  The translator really will not be “moved,” as it will not necessarily operate on the same frequency or have any other relationship with the currently specified technical facilities, but this window is all about waiving the rules defining a “minor change.”   Those rules usually limit the changes that can be made in a translator (except in the rare event of a major change filing window, the last of which occurred in 2003).  Usually, a minor change is one where the translator’s present and proposed 1 mv/m contours overlap, and where the proposed operations are within 3 channels up or down from the current channel on which the translator is authorized.  During these upcoming filing windows, the FCC will waive those restrictions on minor changes to allow a translator to be moved up to 250 miles, and onto any commercial channel that works in the AM station’s market.

The FCC’s public notice also covers many other questions about the filing window.  For instance, it makes clear that AM stations that already have one translator may in fact file for a second translator.  Obviously, that application would need to comply with FCC rules, which include a requirement that an applicant not have two translators that serve the same area.  The notice also reiterates the FCC’s determination that a translator that is moved using this waiver will be locked in to rebroadcasting the AM station for 4 years – it will not be able to be repurposed to be used to rebroadcast another AM station, an FM, or an HD signal.

The Public Notice also points to a tool that the FCC has developed to allow applicants to search to see what translators are within 250 miles of their AM stations.  You can find that search tool on the Commission’s website, here.  Note that, as you need to identify channels that can be used in the area of your AM station without creating interference, you need to get an engineer to look to look at that question.  Moreover, as translators are secondary stations that have to shut down if they create interference to any existing service, including any regularly used full-power station even beyond its normally protected contour, you will need that engineer to be cautious in his or her analysis, as you don’t want to buy a translator, file to move it to the area of your AM, construct it at the new site, and then have to shut it down if it creates any actual interference to a pre-existing station.

This is also just the first step in the process of helping AM stations.  The FCC plans to open a filing window for new translators in 2017, if there is still room in the FM band after the reshuffling of FM translators that will take place under this window.  But it is an important opportunity for many AM stations, and if you are interested, you need to move quickly as there will no doubt be many applications filed on the first day of each of these announced windows.