FM translators for HD signals

For many years, the FCC’s Audio Division has allowed the rebroadcast of FM multicast HD signals on FM translators. Recognizing that HD receivers are still not widely available, the analog FM translator makes these digital subchannels widely available. See our post here from 2010 about a case where the FCC approved such rebroadcasts. Yesterday, the

For well over a decade, since the FM translator filing window of 2003, translators have been a controversial subject. While they have become more important to the broadcast ecosystem – especially as they now rebroadcast AM stations and HD-2 channels of FM stations – their use continues to be controversial, both because of the interference to other stations that is sometimes caused by new translators, and because of their perceived conflicts with LPFM applicants. With the recent announcement from FCC Chairman Pai that the first window for applications for new translators to serve AM stations that did not benefit from last year’s 250-mile waiver window will be accepted this summer, translators will only become more important to broadcasters (see the Chairman’s comments in his NAB speech, the text of which is here). Several recent actions indicate that policy issues dealing with translators will continue to be debated for at least the foreseeable future.

Two recent filings attempt to address the issue of interference between new or relocated translators and full-power stations. Issues arise from time to time, including some high-profile disputes in major markets, where new translators create, or are alleged to create, interference to full-power stations. Under the current FCC rules, any time a new or relocated translator creates interference to any regularly used FM signal, even outside of the usually protected contour of the full-power station, the translator is required to cease operations unless the interference can be remedied. In such situations, the translator licensee acknowledges the interference and changes facilities or channels to remedy it. But there are other cases where the reported interference objections have been challenged by the translator operator, as the alleged interference will occur far from the station claiming the interference, in areas where the translator operator suggests that no reliable FM signal from the protected station could really be received.
Continue Reading FM Translators Still Contentious – New Filing Window, Suggestions for Resolving Interference Complaints and a Request for Reconsideration of Relaxation of Rules on the Location of FM Translators for AM Stations

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.Continue Reading FCC Letter Questions Multi-Hop Move of FM Translator – Limits on Availability of Translators for AM Stations?

The FCC today made it easier to move an FM translator from one location to another, but at the same time adopted new policies that seemingly restrict how far a translator can be moved.  Today’s decision  uses a waiver process to relax the rules so as to permit a move of a translator a greater distance in a single application, but the decision also labels multi-hop moves as an abuse of the Commission’s processes.  As translators have become more important to broadcasters as a way to bring AM and HD-2 signals to a wider audience, this decision will have an immediate and significant impact on many broadcasters, once it becomes clear exactly what are the parameters set by the Commission.

Under Section 74.1233(a) of the FCC rules, a minor change for an FM translator requires that the facilities proposed in an application have a 60 dbu contour that overlaps with the translator’s current licensed 60 dbu.  In effect, this is saying that part of the protected service area of the proposed new facility must overlap with the current protected service area served by the station from its licensed facility.  As major change applications can only be filed during designated translator windows (and there has been no FM translator major change window since 2003), to make any move in a translator, it must be a minor change.  The decision today allows, through a waiver of the rules, a minor change application to be used if the licensed facilities preclude construction of the new facilities, i.e. if the interfering contour of the licensed facilities of the translator overlap with the protected contour specified by the application for new facilities.  A the interfering contour goes much further than the protected contour, this allows the FCC to approve in a single application a move of a greater distance than would be allowed under a strict reading of the rule.  However, there were significant conditions imposed on the application of this new waiver policy that may preclude longer moves that have been common in the last few years. Continue Reading New Policy on FM Translator Moves – Bigger Moves Permitted In One Hop, But Multiple Hops are an Abuse of FCC Processes

August 29 will be the deadline for initial comments on the FCC’s proceeding to set the relationship between applications for new LPFM stations and those for FM translators, a date set forth in a Federal Register publication of the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on this topic.  We wrote about the FCC’s NPRM here.  But

In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that analog FM translators can rebroadcast the signal of a HD digital multicast channel from a commonly owned FM station.  For months, broadcasters have been introducing "new" FM stations to their communities via translators rebroadcasting HD-2 signals which are broadcast digitally on a primary FM station, and available only to those who have purchased HD radio receivers.  In the decision that was just released, the Commission’s staff rejected an objection to the use of an FM translator taking a signal that can only be heard on a digital HD Radio and turning it into an analog signal capable of being received on any FM receiver.  In this case, the broadcaster rebroadcast his AM station on the FM HD station so that it could then be rebroadcast on the FM translator.  But, even if the HD multicast channel was a totally independent station that could otherwise only be heard on an HD digital radio, it could be rebroadcast on the FM translator and received by anyone with an FM radio in the limited area served by the translator station. 

The Commission did make clear, however, that a broadcaster cannot use another station owner’s HD multicast channel and rebroadcast that on a translator if the broadcaster already owned the maximum number of stations allowed by the multiple ownership rules.  In other words, if a broadcaster is allowed by the multiple ownership rules to own 4 FM stations in a market, it could put a fifth (low power) FM signal in that market through the use of an FM translator rebroadcasting one of its own HD multicast signals.  However, if it had not itself converted its FM stations to digital so that it had its own multicast abilities, it could not do a time brokerage agreement and program the multicast signal of another broadcaster in town who had installed the digital equipment needed to do such multicasts.  An LMA or time brokerage agreement with another station for use of an HD multicast channel counts for multiple ownership purposes in the same way that such a programming agreement would if it provided for programming of a primary analog  FM station. Continue Reading FM Analog Translator Can Rebroadcast FM Digital Multicast Programming – Opportunities for New Signals in Local Markets