The FCC last week released a draft order (available here) in its proceeding looking at revising the procedures to resolve complaints of interference by translators (and certain LPFM stations) to existing FM stations. The draft order proposes many changes to the current process. For the most part, these changes will provide more certainty to translator operators as to whether the new translator they are constructing will be subject to being forced off the air, while making it somewhat more difficult for full-power stations to sustain a claim of interference from new translators. We wrote about the FCC’s initiation of this proceeding here and here.

The headline in many reports about this draft order is the FCC’s tentative decision to allow translators that do cause interference to move to any available FM channel to resolve that interference. In the past, channel moves have been limited to moves to adjacent channels that would be considered a “minor change” by the FCC. In many markets, this will provide the translator operator more opportunities to continue to operate its translator if it does in fact create areas of new interference. Of course, in some spectrum-limited markets, there may not be an alternative channel on which a new translator can be authorized if it has to move off its initial channel (and interference complaints may well be more likely in such spectrum-limited markets as the translator operator may not have had many channels that were clearly free from interference concerns from which to select). But the proposed new rules would also make objections harder to support.

Initially, the FCC plans to adopt the 45 dbu contour as the cut-off for interference complaints. A full-service station could not raise interference complaints from listeners outside its predicted 45 dbu contour except in the limited circumstance where there is a significant community outside that contour where numerous listeners to the station reside. If there is such a significant community where listeners reside, a full-power station may ask for a waiver of the cut-off on complaints from outside the 45 dbu contour. Currently, there is no contour limit on complaints.

The FCC also seems likely to significantly raise the number of complaints needed to sustain a complaint. Currently, a single complaint of interference that cannot be resolved will result in a translator being forced to cease operations. Under the proposed new rules, the number of complaints needed to support an objection based on interference complaints is based on the population within the protected contour of the complaining station. In small markets, a complainant would need at least 6 listeners within its 45 dbu contour to complain. In the largest markets, with over 6 million people in the complainant’s service area, 65 complaints would be required to support an objection.

The FCC’s draft order sets standards for disinterested listeners needed to support a complaint. Advertisers and underwriters are not considered disinterested, but social media contacts or members of station listeners clubs (or donors to non-commercial stations) are considered disinterested. If a sufficient number of disinterested complaints are received, the translator operator and the complaining station are to work together to resolve the complaints, using a neutral engineer to assess interference if the parties cannot mutually agree. The FCC will rely on reports from disinterested engineers to resolve complaints that the parties themselves cannot resolve – and will try to do so within 90 days.

This draft order is still subject to comment by interested parties until a week before the FCC meeting. The May FCC meeting is currently set to take place on May 9.