FM translators for AM stations

As we noted in our list of November Regulatory dates for broadcasters, at its November 22 meeting, the FCC will be considering the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (see the draft order here) allowing AM stations to go all digital – on a voluntary basis. This Notice follows a Petition for Rulemaking which I filed on behalf of my client Bryan Broadcasting (see our articles here and here). The FCC’s NPRM, if adopted in the form of the draft Notice, suggests that the Commission, subject to a review of comments, is inclined to adopt the proposal to allow AM stations to voluntarily convert to an all-digital operation. While that is the tentative conclusion of the FCC, it does pose numerous questions on which it seeks comments.

The FCC’s questions include inquiries on the technical, programming, and operational aspects of the conversion of an AM station to digital. But the FCC recognizes some of the potential benefits of the all-digital operation and identifies some of the likely early adaptors of any such technology. These early adopters would likely include AM stations that have an FM translator that can continue to provide programming to the public even if some of the public does not have a radio with AM digital reception capabilities. We note that some AM operators with FM translators have already suggested the possibility of surrendering their AM signal, a proposal that has thus far been rejected by the FCC (see our articles here and here). The prospect of an all-digital AM operation would allow these stations to rely on their FM translator for current analog coverage of their markets, while trying to provide a more robust AM signal in the long-term rather than simply abandoning the service altogether. In addition, music stations are much more likely to be interested in an all-digital operation with the promise of higher fidelity than possible through an analog operation. But the FCC asks numerous other questions.
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For decades, the FCC has been attempting to solve problems with AM reception – in the 90s looking to protect AMs from each other, and today trying to assist them in overcoming the effects of background “noise” coming from the proliferation of electronic devices in the environment which make AM reception, particularly in urban areas, very difficult. Even a number of car makers have announced plans to remove AM radios from new vehicles – particularly electric ones – given these stations’ susceptibility to interference from in-car electronics. Is there a solution?

Bryan Broadcasting (a long-time client that I assisted with its pleading) thinks it is time that the FCC do something dramatic to give AM a long-term future. This week it filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FCC to allow any AM to go all-digital in its operation.  The pleading does not suggest that any AM be forced to convert to an all-digital operation – instead it proposes that stations be given the option to make that conversion whenever they want. This is not a new concept, the FCC having considered it in the past and, in its 2015 AM Revitalization Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, discussed listed it as an issue on which they wanted comments so that they could consider such a transition at some point in the future (that discussion principally advanced in the FCC’s questions about the future use of the expanded band – see our post here on that 2015 Order).  Already, there is one AM station in Maryland operating full-time with all-digital facilities under experimental authority, and several tests have been conducted across the country on this all-digital operation.  While these tests have shown many positive results, why suggest this option for AM stations to make this digital conversion now?
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November is perhaps the month with the lightest schedule of routine FCC regulatory filing obligations – with no requirements for EEO Public File Reports, Quarterly Issues Programs or Children’s Television Reports. Nor are there other routine obligations that come up in the course of any year, though during November of 2019, broadcasters will be preparing for next year’s December 1 Biennial Ownership Report deadline. So does that mean that there are no dates of interest this month for broadcasters? As always, there are always a few dates of which you need to keep track.

The one November date applicable to all broadcasters is the requirement for the filing of ETRS Form Three, which gives a detailed analysis of the results of the nationwide EAS test conducted on October 3. Stations should have filed Form Two on the day of the test reporting whether or not the test was received. They now need to follow up with the more detailed Form Three report by November 19. See our article here for more information.
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Earlier this year, there was a settlement window for mutually exclusive applications in the FCC’s application window for new FM translators for Class A and B AM stations. The FCC yesterday released a list of the applications that are now grantable as a result of conflict resolutions filed during that settlement window. These applicants must

Only three weeks ago, we wrote about an application for experimental authority filed by an AM station operator in Arizona, seeking permission to cease operating its AM station for a one year test to operate solely with its paired FM translator. We suggested that this proposal portended much for the AM band. However, the

The broadcast trade press was abuzz this morning with a report that an Arizona AM station currently simulcasting its programming on an FM translator has asked the FCC for permission to conduct a test where it would shut down its AM for about a year and operate solely through the FM translator. To grant this request, the FCC would need to waive its rule (Section 74.1263(b)) which prohibits an FM translator station from operating during extended periods when the primary station is not being retransmitted.

This idea of turning in an AM station to operate with a paired FM translator (though, in this case, the licensee promises to return the AM to the air within a year) is not a new one and has in fact been advanced in the AM Revitalization proceeding. The proposal offers pros and cons that the FCC will no doubt weigh in evaluating this proposal, and also raises many questions about the future of the AM band.
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The FCC last week issued a Public Notice announcing another window for mutually exclusive applicants filed in the second translator window to attempt to resolve the interference conflicts that the FCC found to exist between certain of these applications. A window for such settlements had been opened several months ago, but these are additional

Common Frequency and Prometheus Radio Project have once again filed with the FCC a request to halt the processing of hundreds of still-pending FM translators from the last translator filing window. The pending applications are the last remaining application from the window which allowed AM stations to seek FM translators to rebroadcast their signals. The

On Friday, the Audio Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau released a letter decision rejecting an objection filed by three groups advocating on behalf of LPFM stations against almost 1000 FM translator applications – most of which were filed to provide FM translators for AM stations in the most recent window for the filing of such applications. We wrote about the grounds for the objections here, which included claims that Section 5 of the Local Community Radio Act, an act setting some ground rules for the relationship between LPFM stations and translators, mandated that the FCC evaluate each of these applications for its individual impact on LPFM opportunities in the future. Once the objection was rejected, the FCC resumed processing of pending applications.

The letter decision found numerous issues with the objection. It noted that 55 of the applications had already been granted when the objection was filed, and 35 had been dismissed, thus the objection came too late. Additionally, a number of the applications to which the objection was directed were mere minor changes in existing translators. The Audio Division noted that the Section 5 of the LCRA, which says that translators and LPFMs are equal in status and that the FCC needed to provide opportunities for each of those classes of stations, did not apply to evaluations of modifications of existing translators, but instead only to applications for new translators.
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