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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In a recent speech before the Community Radio Conference, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn suggested that the proposal to reallocate Channels 5 and 6 for FM radio use had merit and should be considered further.  That proposal is already before the FCC, and ripe for decision – so it could theoretically be adopted tomorrow.  However, the proposal is not backed by all.  While Commissioner Clyburn may think that the idea bears more exploration, there seems to be significantly more consideration that is necessary before a decision on the pending proposals can be made.  What are these proposals, and what is standing in the way of a reallocation? 

As we have written before, the proposals have been made to take TV Channels 5 and 6, which are immediately adjacent to the FM band, and reallocate them to radio broadcasting.  The pending proposals include suggestions that LPFM stations could be located on the new FM channels that could be created, that new space for noncommercial radio operations could be created and, if they operated digitally, there would even be room to move the entire AM band to Channel 5.  While some have suggested that any relief from such a transition would be long in coming, as radios would need to be manufactured, in fact that process might not be as prolonged as suggested, as the frequencies used by these television channels are already used for FM radio in Asia.  Radios already exist that could pick up these channels (at least for analog reception).  However, television interests have opposed this reallotment, but it may well be the broadband plan which could have the greatest impact on the consideration of this issue. 


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Another year is upon us, and it’s time for predictions as to what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2010.  Each year, when we look at what might be coming, we are amazed at the number of issues that could affect the industry – often issues that are the same year to year as final decisions are often hard to come by in Washington with the interplay between the FCC and other government agencies, the courts and Congress. This year, as usual, we see a whole list of issues, many of which remain from prior years. But this year is different, as we have had a list topped by issues such as the suggestion that television spectrum be reallotted for wireless uses and the radio performance royalty, that could fundamentally affect the broadcast business.  The new administration at the FCC is only beginning to get down to business, having filling most of the decision-making positions at the Commission.  Thus far, its attention has been focused on broadband, working diligently to complete a report to Congress on plans for implementation of a national broadband plan, a report that is required to be issued in February.  But, from what little we have seen from the new Commission and its employees, there seems to be a willingness to reexamine many of the fundamental tenants of broadcasting.  And Congress is not shy about offering its own opinions on how to make broadcasting "better."  This willingness to reexamine some of the most fundamental tenets of broadcasting should make this a most interesting, and potentially frightening, year. Some of the issues to likely be facing television, radio and the broadcasting industry generally are set out below.

Television Issues.

In the television world, at this time last year, we were discussing the end of the digital television transition, and expressing the concern of broadcasters about the FCC’s White Spaces decision allowing unlicensed wireless devices into the television spectrum. While the White Spaces process still has not been finalized, that concern over the encroachment on the TV spectrum has taken a back seat to a far more fundamental issue of whether to repurpose large chunks of the television spectrum (if not the entire spectrum) for wireless users, while compressing television into an even smaller part of what’s left of the television band – if not migrating it altogether to multichannel providers like cable or satellite, with subscription fees for the poorest citizens being paid for from spectrum auction receipts. This proposal, while floated for years in academic circles, has in the last three months become one that is being legitimately debated in Washington, and one that television broadcasters have to take seriously, no matter how absurd it may seem at first glance. Who would have thought that just six month after the completion of the digital transition, when so much time and effort was expended to make sure that homes that receive free over-the-air television would not be adversely impacted by the digital transition, we could now be talking about abolishing free over-the-air television entirely? This cannot happen overnight, and it is a process sure to be resisted as broadcasters seek to protect their ability to roll out new digital multicast channels and their mobile platforms. But it is a real proposal which, if implemented, could fundamentally change the face of the television industry.  Watch for this debate to continue this year.


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The FCC today announced that, effective October 27, noncommercial FM stations need no longer protect Channel 6 analog television channels.  The lower end of the FM band, which is reserved for noncommercial educational FM broadcasting, is immediately adjacent to TV Channel 6.  As most television stations abandoned Channel 6 in June when the digital television

David Oxenford presented on the topic "The View from Washington –Issues Posed by the DTV Transition" at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information Symposium Digital TV Transitions: DTV Switchover, Mobile TV, IPTV Lessons and Projections, held at Columbia University in New York City on October 2, 2009.  David discussed issues including low power television’s

The FCC’s staff today issued an Order resolving 26 Groups of mutually exclusive FM applications submitted last year in the filing window for new noncommercial FM stations. We wrote about a previous order in August, processing a smaller group of such applicants.  In each of these groups, the Commission analyzed the coverage proposed by the applicants