If you have a commercial or noncommercial FM radio station, an LPFM or an FM translator, and are looking to file an FCC application to seek a construction permit to authorize technical changes to your station, or to file a license to cover changes that were previously authorized (or which need no prior authorization),

There were several recent FCC decisions on application processing matters worthy of note. One deals with the processing of commercial applications for FM stations or FM translators that are involved in an auction to resolve disputes, the others with the processing of noncommercial applications (in this case for LPFM stations). None break new ground – but instead they reinforce earlier decisions that some who have been around the broadcast industry had found surprising, so these decisions are worth noting. The commercial case involved the question of whether an applicant needs to receive “reasonable assurance of transmitter site availability” before specifying a transmitter site after a broadcast auction. The noncommercial cases deals with the dismissal of an application because of a change in the control of its board of directors while the application was pending.

The commercial case involved the application for a new FM translator in New Jersey, where a local broadcaster filed a petition asking that the translator application be denied as the applicant had never received permission to specify the tower site, owned by the petitioner, in the “long-form” application filed by the applicant after the applicant prevailed in an auction. After the petition was filed, the applicant amended his application to specify another transmitter site. But, under an old line of cases, the failure to have “reasonable assurance” of a transmitter site was fatal to an application and could not be corrected by a later amendment to an available site. In this week’s decision, the FCC reiterated a decision that it made a few years ago (see, for instance, our article here) concluding that, where an application is granted as a result of an auction, the applicant need not have “reasonable assurance” of its transmitter site at the time it files its “long-form” application (the application that specifies the technical details of the facilities that the applicant intends to use to operate its station).
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Last week, there were two decisions that clarified FCC processing policies for new broadcast stations – one dealing with applications for commercial stations, and the other with applications for noncommercial FM stations.  The commercial case made clear that an applicant for a new FM station in the auction process need not have reasonable assurance of the transmitter site that it specifies in its application at the time it files the application, as long as it amends to an available site before the application is granted.  The second, a decision of the US Court of Appeals, upholds the grant of a new noncommercial FM station as a result of a point system analysis, and clarifies the 307(b) preference and when it can be decisive in noncommercial comparative cases.

In the commercial case, a bidder who lost a broadcast auction complained to the FCC that the winning bidder for a new FM station did not have “reasonable assurance” of the availability of the transmitter site that it specified after it filed its “long-form application” on Form 301 after being the successful bidder in an FCC auction for the new channel.  The long-form application, filed shortly after the conclusion of a broadcast auction, is supposed to contain the complete engineering showing of the applicant specifying the technical facilities for the new station that it plans to construct.  The facilities that are specified in this application are reviewed by the FCC staff to make sure that they comply with all FCC technical rules. In this case, the tower site proposed in the Form 301 was apparently owned by one of the owners of the petitioner, and the high bidder did not approach the tower owner for permission to specify her site in the application.  Nevertheless, the FCC agreed to grant the application after the winning applicant amended its application to specify an available site. So what was the issue?
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A recent FCC decision shows how important it is for an applicant for a construction permit for a new or modified broadcast station, which entails the construction of a new tower, to take all steps set out on the the environmental worksheets associated with FCC Form 301 before certifying that the tower will not create environmental issues.  In the recent case, the FCC did not find that any actual environmental issues existed with the applicant’s proposed construction of a new tower, but it nevertheless stated that it would have fined the applicant for a false certification if the statute of limitations for the fine had not passed.  Why?  Simply because the applicant had not touched all of the required bases before making its certification that the tower construction posed no threat to the environment.  The applicant had tried to argue that no environmental study was necessary as the site was a de facto tower farm given that there were already two towers nearby, but that claim was rejected by the FCC, finding that nearby towers do not necessarily constitute a tower farm.

The tower farm issue was interesting in that the applicant pointed to the fact that there were two existing towers within a couple hundred feet of his proposed tower, and thus the existence of these towers, plus the word that he received from local authorities that the site was a good one at which to build a site due to the lack of any perceived impacts, was not sufficient either to make the site a "tower farm" exempt from further environmental processing, nor was it sufficient to demonstrate that there was no need for further environmental study.  The FCC’s staff did a thorough review of the cases about what constitutes a tower farm and, while noting that there was no clear definition in the rules, found that the two nearby towers, as they were substantially shorter than the one proposed by the applicant, were not of the same "character" as that proposed by the applicant, and thus the site was not a tower farm.  Apparently, to some degree, the FCC adopted a "we’ll know it when we see it" approach to the definition of a tower farm, and concluded that they did not see it here.


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