FM translator interference

The FCC’s new rules setting out a procedure to resolve complaints of interference from FM translators to full power stations will become effective on August 13. Initially, as we noted in our list of August regulatory dates for broadcasters, only the new policy allowing translators that cause interference to move to any available

Once upon a time, August was a quiet month in Washington, when everyone went on vacation. Sure, there are plenty of vacations that will happen this coming month, but it seems that regulatory activity no longer takes a break. For example, August 1 is the due date for the filing with the FCC of license renewals for all radio stations (including translators and LPFM stations) in North and South Carolina, and the filing of associated EEO forms for all full power radio stations in those states. With the renewal filing comes the obligation that these stations start airing, on August 1 and August 16, their post-filing announcements informing the public about the submission of the license renewal applications. Radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, who filed their renewals on or before June 2, also need to keep running their post-filing announcements on these same dates. Radio stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who are in the next license renewal group with their renewal applications to be filed by October 1, need to start broadcasting their pre-filing announcements this month, also to run on the 1st and 16th of the month. See our post here on pre-filing announcements.

Commercial and noncommercial full power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM radio stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin that are part of an employment unit with five or more full-time employees must place their annual EEO public inspection file reports in their online public file. Links to those reports should also be placed on the home pages of these station’s websites, if they have a website. The effectiveness of these EEO public file reports, and the EEO programs of which they are a part, are being reviewed by the FCC in a proceeding started by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about which we wrote here. Comments on this notice asking for suggestions about how to make the EEO rules more effective are due August 21, with reply comments due by September 5.
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At its open meeting yesterday, the FCC largely adopted the draft order on changes to its processes for resolving complaints about interference from FM translators to existing FM stations. Its final Report and Order adopting the new rules was released after the meeting yesterday. The general guidelines that we detailed in our summary of the draft order were adopted – so that complaints will generally be considered only when they are from within a primary station’s 45 dBu contour (with a potential for consideration of complaints from outside that contour through a waiver process, where the complaining station shows that there is a significant pocket of listeners outside that contour), and only when a threshold number of bona fide listener complaints have been filed.  When a sufficient number of complaints have been filed, the FCC will ask the operator of the translator to either resolve all complaints by resolving the interference complaints of each of the complaining listeners or by working with the operator of the pre-existing station. If no resolution can be worked out, the parties to the dispute are to engage a third party consulting engineer. FCC will make the final determination whether the interference has been resolved based on information provided by the third-party engineer. If the interference is not resolved to the satisfaction of FCC staff, a translator can be ordered off the air.

The biggest change from the draft order is in the number of complaints necessary to sustain a complaint in bigger markets. In the draft order, the Commission proposed that a station with millions of people in its protected service area might need as many as 65 listener complaints to sustain an interference objection. The Order adopted yesterday changed that tentative decision and instead capped the number of listener complaints that were needed to support an interference claim at 25 for stations with over 2 million people in their protected contour. The FCC also made clear that listeners cannot be offered payment or other inducement for submitting a complaint. Finally, the Commission decided that it would resolve all complaints in 90 days unless there was a compelling reason for more time. Once the FCC has determined that an appropriate number of interference complaints have been filed, it will notify the parties of that fact, and provide intermediate deadlines for submission of a remediation plan or other benchmarks as appropriate. If nothing is resolved in 90 days, and there are no unusual circumstances warranting more time, the FCC may order the offending translator off the air at the end of that period.
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The FCC last week released a draft order (available here) in its proceeding looking at revising the procedures to resolve complaints of interference by translators (and certain LPFM stations) to existing FM stations. The draft order proposes many changes to the current process. For the most part, these changes will provide more certainty to translator operators as to whether the new translator they are constructing will be subject to being forced off the air, while making it somewhat more difficult for full-power stations to sustain a claim of interference from new translators. We wrote about the FCC’s initiation of this proceeding here and here.

The headline in many reports about this draft order is the FCC’s tentative decision to allow translators that do cause interference to move to any available FM channel to resolve that interference. In the past, channel moves have been limited to moves to adjacent channels that would be considered a “minor change” by the FCC. In many markets, this will provide the translator operator more opportunities to continue to operate its translator if it does in fact create areas of new interference. Of course, in some spectrum-limited markets, there may not be an alternative channel on which a new translator can be authorized if it has to move off its initial channel (and interference complaints may well be more likely in such spectrum-limited markets as the translator operator may not have had many channels that were clearly free from interference concerns from which to select). But the proposed new rules would also make objections harder to support.
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Questions about regulations from Washington don’t disappear just because you are spending time in Las Vegas, and this week’s NAB Convention brought discussion of many such issues. We’ll write about the discussion of antitrust issues that occurred during several sessions at the Convention in another post. But, today, we will report on news about more imminent actions on other issues pending before the FCC.

In his address to broadcasters at the conference, FCC Chairman Pai announced that the order on resolving translator interference complaints has been written and is now circulating among the Commissioners for review. The order is likely to be adopted at the FCC’s May meeting. We wrote here about the many suggestions on how to resolve complaints from full-power stations about interference from FM translators. While the Chairman did not go into detail on how the matter will be resolved, he did indicate that one proposal was likely to be adopted – that which would allow a translator that is allegedly causing interference to the regularly used signal of a full-power broadcast station to move to any open FM channel to resolve the interference. While that ability to change channels may not resolve all issues, particularly in urban areas where there is little available spectrum, it should be helpful in many other locations.
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While September is one of those months with neither EEO reports nor Quarterly Issues Programs or Children’s Television Reports, that does not mean that there are no regulatory matters of importance to broadcasters. Quite the contrary – as there are many deadlines to which broadcasters should be paying attention. The one regulatory obligation that in recent years has come to regularly fall in September is the requirement for commercial broadcasters to pay their regulatory fees – the fees that they pay to the US Treasury to reimburse the government for the costs of the FCC’s operations. We don’t know the specific window for filing those fees yet, nor do we know the exact amount of the fees. But we do know that the FCC will require that the fees be paid before the October 1 start of the next fiscal year, so be on the alert for the announcement of the filing deadline which should be released any day now.

September 20 brings the next Nationwide Test of the EAS system, and the obligations to submit information about that test to the FCC. As we have written before (here and here), the first of those forms, ETRS Form One, providing basic information about each station’s EAS status is due today, August 27. Form Two is due the day of the test – reporting as to whether or not the alert was received and transmitted. More detailed information about a station’s participation in the test is due by November 5 with the filing of ETRS Form Three. Also on the EAS front, comments are due by September 10 on the FCC’s proposal to require stations to report on any false or inaccurate EAS reports originated from their stations. See our articles here and here.
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It may be time for summer vacations, but the FCC seemingly never rests, so there are a number of important dates of which broadcasters need to take note. By August 1, EEO Annual Public File Reports are due to added to the public files of Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, if those stations are part of an Employment Unit with five or more full-time employees. TV stations in California have the added requirement that they submit an EEO Mid-Term Report with the FCC by that same date. While the FCC last year simplified EEO recruiting, it still enforces the EEO rules, as evidenced by an admonition that was issued to a TV station at the end of last week, and the fines imposed on radio stations late last year. So don’t forget these obligations (especially as the enforcement of these rules will soon be handled by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, rather than the Media Bureau, suggesting that there will be more enforcement of those rules – see our article here).

On other matters, there are numerous open FCC proceedings in which broadcasters may want to participate. Comments are due on August 6 on the FCC’s rulemaking proposal to adopt simplified rules for processing complaints of interference by FM translators to full power stations. See our articles here and here for details on that proposal.
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The FCC today published in the Federal Register a summary of its proposed rules for resolving complaints of interference to existing full-power stations or other existing FM services from new or relocated FM translators. We summarized the FCC’s proposals in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here and here. The publication in the Federal

At yesterday’s FCC open meeting, the Commission commenced two proceedings of interest to broadcasters. The first deals with the processing of complaints of interference caused by new FM translators. The second proposes to eliminate the need for the posting of station licenses and other FCC authorizations at the control points of broadcast stations. Comments dates in each proceeding will be computed from the publication of these orders in the Federal Register, which will occur at some point in the future.

In each case, the FCC essentially adopted without significant revision the draft notices that were released several weeks ago. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (available here) on translator interference standards sets out proposals for the minimum number of listeners who would have to complain before an interference complaint would be processed, and suggests limiting complaints of interference to those that arise within the 54 dbu contour of the primary station complaining about the interference. We wrote in more detail about the FCC’s proposals in our summary of the draft notice, here.
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May is one of those months where there are neither deadlines for EEO Public File Reports nor for any of the quarterly filings of issues/programs lists and children’s television reports. But the lack of these routine filing deadlines does not mean that there are no dates of interest in the coming month to broadcasters and other media companies. As seemingly is the case every month, there are never times when Washington is ignoring legal issues potentially affecting the industry.

May 10 brings an FCC meeting where two items of interest to broadcasters will be considered. One is a proposal to abolish the requirement for posting licenses and other operating authorizations at a broadcaster’s control point and to eliminate the requirement that FM translators post information about the station’s licensee and a contact phone number at their transmitter sites (see our post here for more details). The second is a proposal to modify the processing of complaints about new or modified FM translators causing interference to existing stations. See our summary of that proposal here. If adopted at the May 10 meeting, these proposals will be available for public comment after they are published in the Federal Register.
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