The FCC yesterday released a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, to be considered at its open meeting on May 10, seeking to add more specificity to its rules for the resolution of interference by new FM translators. The FCC attempts to set out new procedures that it would use to decide if applications for new translators can be granted, and if new translators already granted and constructed can continue to operate, when there are complaints that the new translator will cause interference to existing FM stations and to pre-existing translators and LPFMs. Under current rules, the FCC will deny the application of a new translator if there are regular listeners of another station within the 1 mv/m of the proposed new translator, and a newly constructed translator will be required to cease operations if it cannot resolve complaints of interference to the regularly used signal of any other operating station – even outside of that station’s protected contour. Even a single listener complaint of interference that cannot be resolved from a listener who is not affiliated with the station can cause the FCC to order that a new translator be shut down.

In response to petitions filed by the NAB and a Philadelphia-area translator operator (see our summary of those filings here), the FCC has drafted this NPRM that, if adopted at its May 10 meeting, will put forward for public comment a series of proposals to make the interference complaint resolution process quicker and more objective. There is a general perception, both among full-power broadcasters who have complaints about translator interference, and among translator operators whose operations may be in limbo if subjected to interference complaints, that the current FCC process simply takes too long and is subject to manipulation and unforeseeable outcomes. With over 1500 new translators for AM stations likely to start operations shortly, with many potentially subject to interference complaints, many broadcasters have suggested that the FCC needs to act quickly to make the current system more objective – and to allow it to resolve complaints more quickly.

The FCC has proposed to revise its policies in several ways. First, it suggests that, if a new translator is subject to interference complaints, it can seek to move to any available FM channel to resolve the interference – not just to the three adjacent channels and those channels on which IF interference would be caused. The current rules restricting the choice of new channels provides a very limited selection of alternative channels that could be used to resolve interference complaints. Allowing such moves would be consistent with the practice for LPFM stations and TV translators for resolving similar interference issues and with informal FCC policy when an existing translator suffers interference from a new FM station. Thus, the FCC will seek comment as to whether this is a good idea.

Perhaps more controversial is a proposal to require that there be at least 6 complaints from listeners unaffiliated with any complaining station (e.g. not employees, owners, or contractors of the complaining station or their family members) before a complaint will be processed. The idea is to make sure that there is a real widespread interference issue – so that a unique listener with some unusual affinity for a distant station can’t block the service from a new translator. But the FCC asks if 6 complaints is the right number, or if that number should vary depending on market size or population covered. Questions about affiliation of listeners with the station are also addressed, as are details of the information that complaining listeners need to supply for their complaint to be considered. The FCC tentatively finds that a listener will need to state that they have listened to the complaining station at least twice in the month before the complaint to be considered a regular listener. The FCC also tentatively finds that stations can reach out to its listeners to see if they are getting complaints from new translators – it does not need to sit back and wait for complaints to roll in.

The FCC also is ready to propose that, instead of interference being determined subjectively by the ears of a listener, interference would be measured by objective criteria. Interference that occurs outside a station’s 54 dbu contour would not be protected at all. Other complaints would be resolved through the application of formulas that the FCC uses in other contexts to determine interference based on the ratio between “desired” and “undesired” signals (the desired signal being the station that the listener wants to hear and the undesired one being the translator) based on standard coverage prediction methodology, with perhaps “on/off” tests (where the translator is periodically shut off to see the signal level it produces at a given location) to assess real-world interference. The FCC asks if such objective criteria accomplish its goals of protecting full-power stations and determining where real interference is created.

There is significantly more detail with many more questions asked in the draft NPRM. It should be required reading for both translator operators and licensees of full-power stations, as it raises many issues that this proceeding will attempt to resolve in the near term. Watch to see if this proposal is adopted at the May meeting, and when comments are due after its publication in the Federal Register.