Last week, the FCC approved a long-pending request by GeoBroadcast Solutions to allow FM boosters to originate limited amounts of programming that is different from what is broadcast on the booster’s primary station.  Boosters operate on the same channel as an FM broadcast station and have traditionally been used to fill in holes in an FM station’s coverage area where service that would otherwise be predicted to occur is blocked by terrain obstacles or some other impediment that prevents the main station from reaching a part of the station’s primary service area (in most cases a 60 dBu or 1 mv/m signal) predicted using the FCC’s standard coverage prediction methodology.  As boosters operate on the same channel as the main station, their use has always been limited because of fears of creating interference to the main station’s signal if not properly shielded by terrain or other obstacles.  The service approved last week – called “geocasting” or “zonecasting” – is supposed to allow boosters to originate limited amounts of programming different from the primary station and minimize interference not by terrain, but by other signal timing and coordination methodologies.  The proponent of the system claimed that this would minimize interference and allow stations to originate different commercials, news reports, or other geographically targeted programming in the different parts of a station’s service area to better compete with the geotargeting used by the digital media companies that are now competitors to radio.

Numerous broadcasters, and the NAB, had opposed this effort, as we noted in a recent article on the controversy.  Their fear was that no matter how good the synchronization of these boosters may be, there will still be the potential for some interference.  Just by putting more signals on the FM band in close proximity to each other, some interference naturally will result.  Objections were also raised about the economic impact of the proposals.  With more radio inventory addressing fewer people, there are fears that the implementation of this proposal could drive down radio advertising prices far below the rate now in place.  In addition, there are worries about the impact that geocasting could have in outlying smaller markets – as big market stations could use boosters in outlying parts of their service areas to target advertisers in these areas, taking advertising away from the full power stations serving those outlying communities.  The FCC’s order last week noted that the New Jersey broadcasters expressed particular concern, as New York and Philadelphia stations could use boosters to target advertisers who now buy advertising on New Jersey stations to reach local consumers because rates on the big city stations are cost prohibitive for reaching a targeted audience.  The fear is that these advertisers will now use the boosters of big city stations and abandon their local broadcasters, and that big stations will get bigger and more dominant, at the expense of the local stations doing local service to these outlying areas.

Even though the proposal was hotly contested, the FCC nevertheless agreed to move forward and approve the use of these boosters to originate programming, dismissing the interference claims as unproven.  Essentially, the FCC decided that it did not want to stand in the way of a new technology.  While there may be costs, the Commission felt that the flexibility to offer these services outweighed all the concerns expressed by the objecting broadcasters.

The Commission decided to allow each primary FM station, commercial or noncommercial, to use boosters to originate up to 3 minutes of programming (or commercials) every hour.  Any FM station will be allowed to apply for as many as 25 boosters per main station.  There is no distinction made between the number of boosters permitted for a Class A FM or a Class C FM station.  In talking to one engineering consultant for a big group last week after this decision came out, he said that his group, in the most terrain obstructed markets, has rarely been able to use more than three boosters for any main station without interference issues.  Yet the FCC is now allowing stations to use as many as 25 boosters per station.

The FCC will require the boosters to repeat all EAS alerts broadcast by the main station.  The FCC proposes that boosters will also have political broadcasting obligations, presumably allowing federal candidates to get reasonable access to their localized service areas, and all candidates to get equal opportunities if any competing candidate is allowed to buy time on one of the boosters.  These and other service rules (including rules for FCC notification when a booster will be used for localized programming and for resolving any interference issues that do arise) will be finalized in a subsequent order that will set out the details as to how these boosters will operate.  The Commission will take further comments on these service rules after last week’s decision is published in the Federal Register. 

While the FCC will follow up with this subsequent order to set the permanent service rules, FM broadcasters will be allowed, as soon as the FCC’s decision is effective after it is published in the Federal Register, to apply to immediately provide localized services on boosters through experimental authority – though there really is nothing experimental about it.  The FCC will not require reports on the operation of these “experimental” operations, which are usually required for such experiments.  The FCC is also allowing commercialization of these experimental authorizations, something that is usually banned in experimental operations.

The FCC decision is a rare one in recent months – a unanimous decision to let the marketplace decide as to whether or not to deploy these program-originating booster stations.  The FCC is not willing to protect local services who fear disruption from these services, but instead it will allow their deployment and only react in the future if significant issues are raised.  It would not be surprising to see many of the concerns that have already been raised about this service reiterated in the upcoming proceeding to set the service rules – and those arguments may be able to rely on the actual experiences of stations that have implemented the service through an experimental authorization.  Stay tuned for more developments in this proceeding.