FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced yesterday that he plans to test a new FCC procedure – releasing drafts of FCC orders to be considered at future FCC meetings at the same time as the proposed agenda for the meeting is released, weeks in advance of the meeting. On the draft agenda for the February 23rd meeting are two items of interest for broadcasters, and draft orders for both of these items were released yesterday – one for radio and one for TV. By releasing these drafts early, all parties affected by the orders can review them and spot issues which can be brought to the Commissioners’ attention before the orders are adopted. We write about the radio item below, and will cover the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for next-generation TV using the ATSC 3.0 standard in a separate article.

For radio, the draft order would permit an expansion of the area in which an FM translator rebroadcasting an AM station can be located. Under current rules, the 1 mv/m contour of translator must be entirely contained within the lesser of the daytime 2 mv/m contour of the AM station or within a circle with a 25 mile radius from the AM transmitter site. With severely directional AM stations, sometimes the ones most in need of help from FM translators, translators can be restricted to service areas only a few miles from the primary AM station in some directions – leaving the AM stations unable to serve their entire market and fill in the holes in their coverage area. This issue was raised as one of many issues for consideration in the FCC’s AM revitalization proceeding, about which we wrote here. Under the draft order released yesterday, translators will now be able to be located in a much greater area – as long as the 1 mv/m contour stays within a 25 mile radius measured from the AM site or within the 2 mv/m contour of the AM station – whichever is greater. This promises to give all AM stations the opportunity to serve their markets with FM translators and, for larger AM stations, gives them the ability to fill in their service areas with FM translators (perhaps multiple translators) over a much larger area.

Of course, anyone wanting to take advantage of this proposal needs to find a translator in their service area that can be used to rebroadcast their AM signal. As many translators that were already being put to productive and valued uses by their owner have already been sold, capitalizing on the new opportunities presented by this order may be difficult in some markets. The FCC has promised to open a window this year for the filing of applications for new translators – but this window will be restricted to applications by AM stations that did not acquire translators using the 250-mile waiver available to AM stations in two windows last year (see our articles here and here). Many AM owners are waiting for this year’s window to open – especially AMs located in smaller, more rural markets where the FM spectrum congestion is less severe, leaving room for new translators. But as this upcoming window is just for some AM stations, and even as to them, it is limited to one translator per AM station, there still is significant demand for more translators to rebroadcast AM stations that may not be met until a full window for new translators is opened at some undefined point in the future.

The openness of pre-releasing these draft orders is welcome, and all broadcasters and broadcast engineers should review the translator order to make sure that there are no issues that should be brought to the Commission’s attention. As the week before the meeting is typically a silent period when no communications are allowed with the Commissioners and other FCC decision-makers, there is only a limited period to raise those issues before the February 23 meeting. So act now if there are concerns!