At last week’s Radio Show, Commissioner Pai presented remarks, talking about the pending regulatory ideas that can help radio broadcasters. After discussing the benefits of the recent rule changes that have made translators available for AM stations, and other AM improvement proposals that are on the table, he turned to FM. In his discussion of FM, he applauded efforts to include an activated FM chip in mobile phones. Then, he turned to a proposal first put out for FCC comments two years ago – the idea that the FCC look at the potential of the creation of a new class of FM stations – the Class C4 FM radio station.

A Class C4 station would fit between Class A FM stations (limited to 6 kw ERP at 100 meters antenna height above average terrain) and a Class C3 (25 kw at 100 meters). The Class C4 station would be authorized with a power of up to 12 kw ERP. According to the Commissioner’s speech, this would allow for Class A stations to upgrade their facilities to better serve their communities. We wrote about this proposal when it was first released (here), presenting more details about the technical facilities that are involved in this proposal. While some broadcasters did initially support the proposal, others were less enthusiastic about the idea. Why are there issues with this proposal?

One of the biggest issues is simply the congestion of the FM band. The more stations that are shoehorned into the FM band, the more interference that is created. Many FM stations enjoy listenership beyond the coverage that is predicted by the FM spacing tables. Increasing power of existing Class A stations might well limit those areas of service enjoyed by some stations, and might also limit the ability of existing stations to upgrade to higher classes with more meaningful coverage increases.   It may also reduce flexibility of existing stations to change transmitter sites if something happens to the sites from which they currently operate.

But, today, the area where there is perhaps the most concern is the impact that the proposal, if implemented, could have on FM translators and LPFM stations.   Congestion in the FM band limits opportunities for new FM translators and LPFMs, and could even disrupt the operation of existing translators and LPFM stations. Upgrades by Class A stations to Class C4 could cause interference to the existing translators and LPFMs, perhaps requiring these secondary stations to have to change frequency (if other frequencies are available in their market). In the two years since comments were initially filed on the Class C4 proposal, the use of translators has only increased, particularly to rebroadcast AM stations. Obviously, any consideration of this proposal would have to look at the differences in the use of translators that have occurred since it was first advanced.

The Commissioner only proposed that this proposal be given further consideration through the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. If other Commissioners joined in the Commissioner’s proposal, this would not mean that any new rule would be adopted, only that it would advance into a more formal proposal on which broadcasters would have the opportunity to comment. Certainly, if the proposal was to advance, the issues discussed above would be addressed and the Commission would be faced with the need to weigh the benefits of the upgrades that some stations could enjoy against the limits on translators and other FM upgrades that could be precluded. We’ll see if anything happens on this proposal in the waning days of the current FCC administration.