Comments on the proposal of GeoBroadcast Solutions to allow FM boosters to originate limited amounts of programming different from that carried on their primary stations were due to be filed by this past Monday. We wrote about the GeoBroadcast proposal for “zonecasting” here. The comments as filed at the FCC fell principally into three categories. GeoBroadcast Solutions and its supporters argued that the FCC should move forward with the limited rule changes that it seeks, changing the FM booster rules from requiring 100% duplication of the primary station to one which only requires substantial duplication of the main station – thus allowing for limited inserts of localized content including localized news, advertising and emergency information. A second set of comments asked whether the technology had really moved forward sufficiently to warrant a notice of proposed rulemaking now – particularly as the system had not yet been fully tested for digital broadcast operations (commonly referred to as “HD Radio”). Finally, there were proposals looking to expand the scope of the proceeding beyond GeoBroadcast’s limited technical proposal, to allow for other systems to provide the service and even to expand the proposal to also allow FM translators to originate programming. Let’s look at each of these sets of comments.
Those supporting the GeoBroadcast proposal covered both the technology and business/operational aspects of the proposal. Comments by GeoBroadcast’s engineer and the GatesAir, Inc., which developed the MaxxCasting technology for boosters to minimize interference between the boosters and their primary station, argued that the technology already works for analog broadcasts and was promising for HD Radio operations. Support for the business case came from advocates for minority organizations (arguing that the technology would allow better targeting of these audiences), media brokers (arguing that the value of stations would increase), ad buyers (looking at the targeting prospects of the technology) and emergency communications experts (looking at the ability to target emergency information).
Another group of broadcasters submitted comments not only favoring the zonecasting proposal but looking to significantly expand it. These comments argue that the FCC should not only approve origination on boosters, but it should also allow FM translators that rebroadcast AM stations to originate local programming. The proposal not only suggests that translators be allowed to originate a minimal amount of programming as proposed by GeoBroadcast, but that they be able to originate as much as 40 hours per week. This would allow translators to not only rebroadcast the short commercials, news or emergency information, but they could also originate local programming like different high school football games being broadcast at the same time in different parts of the service area of an AM station. The proposal does not stop there – but suggests that the contour in which these translators can be located be extended to the 45 dBu contour – as used as the outer limit of protected service from FM stations when assessing interference from new translator applications (see our article here on the adoption of that contour for translator interference purposes). That is far beyond the current 60 dBu protected contour in which a translator (or booster) can currently be located.
Other comments were more circumspect in their support of the zonecasting proposal. The NAB indicates tentative support but expresses hope that the service will be extended to HD radio, as it is concerned about interference, especially to these digital operations. Xperi, which owns HD radio, expresses that same concern, looking for more testing of the zonecasting system and its impact on HD. Even more concerned is a coalition of large broadcaster groups who fear that the technology has been insufficiently tested to ensure that boosters which originate programming will not cause interference issues with the main station, driving away FM listeners. These broadcasters ask for additional testing before the FCC moves forward with any more formal proposal to approve the zonecasting system.
The FCC must now deal with this diversity of comments and determine whether to move forward with the GeoBroadcast proposal. The next step will be for the FCC to determine if it will issue a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, posing specific questions about the system, as well as specific regulatory proposals that it could adopt, and soliciting additional comments as to whether the system should be approved. Alternatively, the FCC could decide that it does not yet have enough information to move forward. In some cases, that would mean that the proposal would simply sit at the FCC until there was wider support. In other cases (as the FCC did with the proposal for C4 FM stations), the FCC could issue a Notice of Inquiry asking more pointed questions about the zonecasting system but not specifically proposing to adopt it before those additional questions are answered. No matter how the FCC decides to move forward, there are significant regulatory hurdles that this proposal must clear before there is any final resolution as to whether broadcasters can start to more finely target their audience in the way that GeoBroadcast proposes.