FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in a speech this week at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Summer Convention (the text of the speech is available here), announced that he has circulated to the other Commissioners for review and approval a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to make changes to AM interference standards. Specifically, he said that the NPRM would look at Class A AM interference standards. I was in the audience for the Chairman’s remarks, and audience reaction was muted – perhaps because so few people regularly use the term “Class A AM” when referring to what many call the “clear channel” stations – those big 50 kW AM stations that can often be heard halfway across the country at night because of their “skywave” service bouncing off the atmosphere to be received hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from where the signal originates.

What to do about Class A AM stations was an issue teed up by the FCC in the AM Revitalization proceeding initiated several years ago (see our post here summarizing the issued raised by the FCC back in 2013). While these clear channel stations are enjoyed by listeners far from their own city of license (often bringing sports broadcasts to distant fans, or programs like the Grand Ole Opry that have become national institutions), the huge service areas of these stations does come at a cost to local service – as many lower powered AM stations operating on the same channel as these Class A stations have to either drastically reduce their power or cease operations all together during nighttime hours. While some AM licensees have received FM translators to fill in those service gaps, those translators do not bring listeners back to the AM band itself. So, in the Revitalization proceeding, the FCC asked for ideas as to what it should do with these stations – e.g. if it should advance proposals to reduce protection to the clear channel stations in order to allow more local AMs to increase their nighttime power. It appears that the NPRM announced by the Chairman on Tuesday will crystalize the comments received in response to the 2013 Notice into more specific proposals for action.
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The FCC’s proceeding on revitalizing AM radio is headed into its second phase, looking at further steps that it can take to assist the oldest broadcast service adapt and thrive in the new media world. In the Fall, the FCC adopted certain policy and rule changes to help AM stations, most notably allowing wider use of FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations through waivers allowing translators to change channels and be moved up to 250 miles to serve an AM station (see our articles here and here for more details). Now the proceeding moves on to consideration of additional proposals on which the FCC seeks comments. The comments are due on March 21. Proposals to reduce the protections afforded to “clear channel AM stations” and the end of dual-band operations by certain stations that were given expanded band channels (at the top end of the AM dial between 1610 and 1700 AM) have received a fair amount of comment in the trade press, but there are other proposals as well. What are some of the issues that the FCC is considering? A brief summary of some of the proposals is set out below.

Lessening of AM station protections. The FCC offered three proposals for a lessening of interference protections afforded to AM stations. To some, lessening of the interference protections between AM stations might seem to be a backward step in improving the service (and a step that is in many ways undoing the FCC’s last major review of the AM rules 25 years ago, where the focus was on minimizing interference between AM stations). But, in each of these cases, the FCC now sees the major culprit in the decreasing popularity of AM stations as not the interference between AM stations, but instead the interference that comes from environmental background “noise” from all of the electronic gadgets that are now part of everyday life. To overcome that background noise, the FCC’s underlying rationale in most of these proposals is to make it possible for more local AM stations to increase their power. While the power increases might lead to increased interference between AM stations, it is the FCC’s premise that most of the interference would be in areas far from the station’s primary service area – and increased power in the center of service areas would make up for the losses by helping the stations to overcome the background noise. Of course, even with the proposals, not all AM stations will be able to increase power, so the stations that suffer interference in their outer coverage areas may not be the same stations that receive benefits from the service improvement in their core markets. Here are the areas in which the FCC proposes to decrease protections between AM stations.
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Last week, acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn delivered a speech at the NAB Radio Show, which talked about new technology and old, and her affection for AM radio.  In the most newsworthy aspect of the speech, the Chairwoman announced that the FCC is currently considering a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to improve the service delivered by AM radio. As we wrote here, the issue of AM improvement has been a major initiative advanced by Commissioner Pai, looking to restore AM radio’s competitive posture.  Attention is needed to overcome some of the many obstacles that AM faces, including those from interference that has increased significantly in many metropolitan areas, causing more and more electronic “noise” that disrupts the AM service. The discussion at the Radio Show raised several proposals for AM relief. But will they really help AM stations?

First, it is important to understand that the Chairwoman was talking only about a series of proposed actions – nothing has yet been decided. There is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is circulating at the Commission. This means that the proposal has been drafted and is being reviewed by the other Commissioners. Once they finish their review, the Notice will be released to the public, which will then have some period of time (probably a few months) to comment on the suggestions made by the Commission. According to the Chairwoman’s speech, and echoed by Commissioner Pai in an address that he delivered to the Radio Show, broadcasters will also be urged to come forward with their own ideas as to how to improve AM radio. All of the comments filed by the public will have to be digested before the Commission can actually implement any of them. With that background, what is to be proposed, and which actions will likely move the fastest?


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At the NAB Radio Show, Commissioner Ajit Pai delivered an address discussing a number of topics, including a proposal for the FCC to undertake a study of AM radio and to come up with a plan to make that service more competitive. We cover many topics here on the Broadcast Law Blog, and often write about changes in service for FM radio and television, as well as the digital media, but it seems that our coverage of AM mirrors the FCC’s attention to the service in the last few years – relegated primarily to situations where struggling AMs run on a shoe string budget run into the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau because of some significant violation of the Commission’s rules. So what did Commissioner Pai propose, and is it realistic to expect real reform of the AM service?

The mere fact that the Commissioner proposed a study, and one to be completed in just over a year, is in and of itself encouraging. The NAB has been internally conducting a similar study, though no results have been released yet. The AM band has suffered from many problems, including a decrease in the quality of AM receivers as FM has become much more dominant, and the increase in background “noise” creating interference to AM service – all sorts of electronic devices that are now so common everywhere, including many of the lights now used both indoors and outdoors, create interference to the AM service that make listening, especially in most urban areas, difficult. So what can be done?


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A petition was recently filed at the FCC proposing to allow all AM stations to increase to 10 times their current power in order to overcome the effects of interference that has grown up in most urban areas from the operation of all sorts of electronic equipment, fluorescent lights and other devices that simply did not exist when AM power levels were first established.  The petition was drafted by an engineer, who argues that, as the amount of background noise from all sorts of electronic devices has increased, so has the noise on the AM band.   He believes that the only way to make the AM signal usable is to vastly increase power on all stations.  As the stations would maintain their relative power levels towards each other, he claims that there would not be increased interference between AM stations – but that the increased power levels would overcome the background noise.  However, because of AM skywave issues, the petition suggests that nighttime power levels remain at their current levels.

How realistic is this proposal?  The petition recognizes that, in border areas, the power increase could not happen without international coordination and the amendment of existing treaties.  But, given the proposed high power for AM stations and the cumulative effect that their signals can have on distant stations, this increase could seemingly affect international AM stations even if the US stations increasing power are far from the border.  However, the use of AM stations has been decreasing in some countries – in Canada, a number of AM stations have already ceased operating, so maybe the international implications could be overcome given enough time.


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