The FCC last week released its tentative agenda for its April 23 open meeting.  For broadcasters, that meeting will include consideration of the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (draft NPRM here) looking to broaden obligations for the audio description of television programming (referred to as the Video Description proceeding) – which we will write about in more detail later.  The agenda also includes a Report and Order modifying rules relating to Low Power FM stations, which also addresses the protection of TV channel 6 stations by FM stations (full-power or LPFM) operating in the portion of the FM band reserved for use by noncommercial stations.  The FCC’s draft order in this proceeding is here.  We initially wrote here about these FCC’s proposals when the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the proceeding was adopted last year. Today, we will look at how the FCC has tentatively decided to resolve some of the issues.

One of the most controversial issues was the proposal to allow LPFM stations to operate with a directional antenna.  While some directional operations had been approved by waiver in the past, there was some fear that allowing these antennas more broadly could create the potential for more interference to full-power stations.  As a directional antenna requires greater care in installation and maintenance to ensure that it works as designed, some feared that LPFM operators, usually community groups often without a broadcast background or substantial resources, would not be able to properly operate such facilities.  The FCC has tentatively decided to allow use of directional antenna by LPFM stations. However, it will require LPFM stations installing such antennas to conduct proof of performance measurements to assure that the antenna is operating as designed.  The cost of such antennas, the limited situations in which such antennas will be needed (principally when protecting translators and in border areas), and the additional cost of the proof of performance should, in the FCC’s opinion, help to limit their use to entities that can afford to maintain them properly.

Also, the FCC has tentatively decided to allow LPFM stations to operate FM boosters.  As with any other FM station, the booster cannot extend the signal of the primary LPFM station.  Boosters will be helpful principally in areas with irregular terrain that shields part of an LPFM’s service area from receiving the main station’s signal.  As these stations operate on the same channel as the LPFM itself, if not properly shielded, they can create interference to the primary station.  The FCC will allow any LPFM station to operate up to two boosters (or two translators) or one translator and one booster.

The definition of a minor change in the transmission facilities of an LPFM would be broadened if the FCC adopts the draft Order.  Instead of limiting a minor change to moves of 5.6 kilometers, the FCC is now doubling that limitation – allowing moves of up to 11.2 kilometers or to any location where the present and proposed 60 dBu contour of the LPFM station would overlap.  This change is important to LPFM advocates as it significantly increases the area in which a station can be moved without waiting for the infrequent filing windows for new stations and major changes.  Minor changes can be filed at any time.

The FCC declined to allow LPFMs to increase maximum power from 100 to 250 watts.  The FCC has previously rejected similar proposals and decided that there was no reason to change that decision now.  The FCC felt that there would be too many potential interference issues, including issues that have already been raised by some full-power stations about LPFMs in “foothills” areas – where their height above average terrain is low and can put a vast signal over a metropolitan area.  That can occur if the LPFM is in an area that is high relative to the metropolitan area in one direction, but the height of the proposed antenna above average terrain is lowered because there are mountains behind the transmitter site, thus lowering the average terrain height (which is computed on the average of the heights along 12 radials extending from the proposed transmitter site).  A higher antenna can dramatically increase coverage over the lower metropolitan area far beyond what the FCC predicted when it adopted the required mileage separation requirements that apply to LPFM stations.

The one issue in the order with ramifications beyond LPFMs is the decision not to decide to lift all restrictions on the location of FM stations – full-power or low power – operating in the reserved portion of the FM band from locating too close to Channel 6 TV (or LPTV) stations.  Prior to the digital television transition, as the FM band is adjacent to Channel 6 and the analog TV transmission system involved FM-like transmission of audio signals, there was the potential for interference between analog FM stations operating low on the FM band and analog TV stations on Channel 6.  While the conversion to digital television has removed many of these issues, some TV operators argued that the potential for interference to digital signals has not been fully analyzed.  They also pointed to the fact that certain LPTV stations may still be operating in analog until July 2021.  Thus, the FCC declined to abolish the interference protections entirely at this point in time.  However, the FCC will permit noncommercial operators in the reserved band (full power or LPFM) to seek a waiver of Channel 6 protection requirements if they can show that the proposed operations would not create interference to any nearby Channel 6 TV station.  That showing would be made using the FM translator criteria in Section 74.1205(c) which establishes an interfering contour for the FM station depending on the frequency on which it operates and a protected Grade B contour for the Channel 6 TV station.  Where those contours don’t overlap, an FM in the reserved band can be located.

The FCC proposes to make other changes regarding LPFM operations in this Order – so review the order to see how they may affect your operations and watch for action at the April 23 meeting to see if these draft rule changes are adopted.