An FCC letter to the licensee of an FM translator owner asking very specific information about a series of applications to move that translator to a larger market raises question as to whether the FCC is shutting the door on moves of translators from one market to another – where they have often been used to rebroadcast the signal of an AM or an FM HD signal, adding new competition. While this letter does not explicitly say that multi-hop moves of translators are impermissible under FCC rules, the fact that an investigatory letter from the FCC to one applicant is published in the FCC’s general releases indicates that a message is being sent by the Commission. And the letter questions whether the large move accomplished by a series of small hops is an abuse of the FCC’s processes. The letter asks for the details of each move in the series – where the station was built, who gave permission to use the transmitter sites that were used, how long the station operated at each location, what primary station’s signal did the translator rebroadcast at each site, and what the applicant’s ultimate purpose in the moves was.
We’ve written about the FCC’s apparent crackdown on FM translator moves – first by simply slowing the processing of such applications, then entering into a consent decree with a monetary penalty and the forfeiture of a translator license by a translator licensee who apparently did not have reasonable assurance of every transmitter site in a multi-hop move, then suggesting that such moves were an abuse of process (while, at the same time, making more limited moves easier). Now it seems to be actually taking steps to enforce the thinking that, where there is an intent to accomplish a "major change by multiple minor change applications", there is an abuse of process. Thus, the FCC seems to be drawing the noose tighter around the ability to move these stations large distances.
The FCC, when it authorized the use of FM translators for AM stations did so with the caveat that only translators that had been granted as of the date of its 2009 order would be allowed to be used for such rebroadcasts. In many markets, this put a premium on existing translators, as there were not enough translators to rebroadcast all the stations that wanted to be rebroadcast – even where the spectrum to locate such translators existed. A number of broadcasters found translators in other communities that could technically fit in the community where the broadcaster operated, and agreed to buy them if they could be moved. Outside a "major change window", translators can only be moved by "minor changes", i.e. where their existing contour overlaps the proposed new contour. During translator windows, larger moves are permitted, but the last translator window was in 2003. Another is not expected for at least another year or, most probably, two or more. To get around the limitation on major changes, translator licensees would file a series of minor change applications to move a translator from one site to another (commonly referred to as a "hop"), build the translator at each site, and, through a series of minor changes, ultimately move to the city where there was an AM station or HD signal that wanted to use that translator. For a time, the FCC seemed fine with this process.