Zonecasting – the proposal by GeoBroadcast Solutions to allow FM boosters to originate limited amounts of programming different than their primary station – has advanced at the FCC though the release this week of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking formally asking if the FCC should adopt rules permitting this service and, if so, what those rules should be.  We wrote about the initial proposal earlier this year when it was first received by the FCC.  The proposal would allow an FM broadcaster to use an FM booster to geo-target ads and news to different parts of its service area by putting this different information (up to 5% of a station’s hourly programming) on a booster.  So, for instance, a station could be running an ad for a car dealer in one part of its market on its main station and originate an ad for a different local dealer in another part of the market by originating that programming on a booster – with both ads running at the same time.  This week’s NPRM asks numerous questions on many aspects of the proposal.

These questions generally center in three very general areas.  First, the FCC asks about the technical issues (would the service cause interference as boosters operate within the primary station’s 1 mv/m service area and operate on the same channel as the primary station – and would this system work with HD radio operations). Second, it asks about the operational issues (questions about how much origination should be allowed, what kinds of programming could be originated, how many different boosters should be allowed for each main station, and how the service would be rolled it out).  Finally, it asks about business and policy questions (including whether this is really a good thing for the industry and its economics).  We will provide a little more color on each of these areas below, but first it is worth mentioning the FCC’s treatment of a comment that was filed when this proposal was first advanced – seeking to expand this proposal to cover translators as well as boosters (see our article here on that proposal).

In the initial comments filed earlier this year when the rulemaking request was first filed, a coalition of smaller broadcasters asked that the proposal be expanded to include FM translators (including those that rebroadcast AM stations) as well as boosters – and that the 5% limit on the amount of origination be significantly expanded to allow as much as 40% origination.  The argument was that with this expanded origination potential, these translators would be able to not just originate different commercials or newsbreaks, but also more in-depth regionalized programming, e.g. separate high school sports games in different parts of the primary station’s market.  The FCC in the NPRM saw this as a different issue from the one being advanced by GeoBroadcast Solutions and decided to not consider that proposal in this proceeding.  Instead, if interested parties wanted to pursue that idea, the FCC suggested that they petition to start a separate proceeding to look at rule changes that specifically apply to translator operations.

Let’s look at some of the specific questions asked by the FCC on the proposal that is being considered in this NPRM. First, there are the technical issues.  The FCC’s concerns on technical matters worry about several different issues.  These include:

  • The amount of interference that will arise between boosters and the main station, whether that interference would be acceptable to listeners, and how it should be evaluated or limited by the FCC (or should it be simply left to the discretion of the broadcaster)?
  • The potential to interference to other stations. While boosters are contained within the 1 mv/m of their primary station and operate on the same channel, do they pose any concerns for other stations as they will be separate transmitters located throughout the service area of the primary station?
  • Should there be specific power limits on the boosters to minimize interference areas?
  • Whether the system will work for HD operations – and if so, would the boosters be allowed to originate just the primary audio stream of the HD station, or could it also include the subchannels broadcast by the primary station – and would origination be allowed on those subchannels, too?

Second, the FCC looked at operational issues (some of which may be influenced by the technical questions):

  • Is a limit on origination of 5% of hourly programming the right limit?
  • What kinds of origination should be allowed? The proponent of the rulemaking suggested that the originated programming be substantially similar to that being broadcast on the primary station – but what does that mean?
  • Should there be a limit on how many boosters taking advantage of the origination rules one company can have?
  • Should noncommercial FM stations as well as commercial stations be allowed to take advantage of any new rules? If so, are there different issues that arise in the noncommercial context?
  • How many requests are likely to be filed, and should the FCC set up a staggered application system to prioritize applications for new boosters from any particular class of station?

Finally, on the business and policy issues (that also overlap with some of the issues listed above), the FCC is generally to be asking whether this proposal was really a good idea.  The FCC asked questions including:

  • Would the idea promote localism?
  • What impact it would have on advertisers?
  • Would smaller stations be able to afford to make this conversion?
  • Would some listeners end up being ignored by this targeted programming?
  • How would it impact different FCC rules, e.g. public file rules for issues like political broadcasting where, for instance, different political ads could run in different parts of a station’s market?

There may well be concerns of broadcasters on many of these issues.  In the initial comments, several broadcasters worried about the general degradation of the FM band from more and more signals creating pockets of interference here and there.  What would listeners reactions be to such interference?

Others worry about the impact on the economics of smaller stations dependent on local advertising dollars to support their local service.  If a big central-city station can originate unique ads in different outlying parts of its metropolitan area, will these ads impinge on the ability of stations targeting these outlying communities to support their locally-targeted programming?  Will big regional stations in more rural areas be able to do the same thing – compete for local dollars in each smaller community in its service area – dollars that currently go to stations that just serve those smaller communities?  It is interesting that the NPRM does not even mention Section 307(b) of the Communications Act, that requires the FCC to allocate service among the communities of the US.  Section 307(b) has long been cited as requiring the assessment of the impact of a new service on service that is being provided to local communities.

We can expect this will be a contentious proceeding with comments coming in on all of these issues.  Resolution will likely not come until later next year, and perhaps even some time after that.  To express your views, be ready when the comment dates in this proceeding are announced.  Comments will be due in 2021 – 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register.  Reply comments will be due 60 days after the Federal Register publication.