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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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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At the NAB Radio Show in Dallas in September, FCC Commissioner Pai promised that the FCC would take action to revitalize the AM band (see our story here). For years, AM has suffered a gradual erosion in listening, as interference on the band has increased – not necessarily from other AM stations, but instead from background noise that is now part of the environment in most urban areas. This interference is caused by everything from fluorescent lights to plasma TV screens to various other electronic devices that are prevalent in the modern world. At the NAB Show in Las Vegas the week before last, Commissioner Pai reprised his discussion of AM improvements, this time moderating a panel of experts to discuss the potential remedies to the problems faced by the AM radio service. So just what remedies may be possible?

The panel set out several possible solutions to AM interference issues, all of which have potential downsides or problems. These include the following:

  • — More FM translators for AM stations
  • — Blanket power increases for all AM stations
  • — A reduction in skywave protection
  • — The adoption of a cellular architecture for AM stations
  • — All-digital operation for AM stations

Let’s look at each of these options below.


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The FCC’s January 2010 Order authorizing FM radio stations to increase power on their hybrid digital radio operations was published in the Federal Register on Thursday establishing the effective date of the new rules as May 10th.  As we wrote earlier, the Commission’s Order allows stations to increase from the current maximum permissible level of one percent

This afternoon the Commission released an Order authorizing FM radio stations to increase power on their hybrid digital radio operations. This power increase is a welcome boost to HD radio operations and was eagerly awaited by many FM stations broadcasting in digital.  In a nutshell, the rule change allows stations to increase from the current maximum permissible level of one percent of authorized analog effective radiated power (ERP) to a maximum of ten percent of authorized analog ERP.  In raising the power permitted for digital radio operations, the Commission acknowledged that the current digital power levels are insufficient to replicate stations’ analog coverage and that indoor and portable coverage are particularly diminished.  Building on proposals advocated by National Public Radio (NPR) and iBiquity, the Commission has provided for an immediate voluntary 6 dB increase in Digital ERP (except for super-powered FM stations, as discussed below).   In addition, stations will be allowed to seek authority for increases over 6 dB up to a maximum of 10 dB using an informal application process.

Once the Order becomes effective, eligible FM stations may commence operations with FM digital operating power up to -14 dBc (that is, up to a 6 dB increase), consistent with the existing IBOC notification procedures.  Stations availing themselves of the voluntary power increase must notify the FCC electronically of the increased digital power within 10 days of commencement using the Digital Notification form via the Commission’s Consolidated Database System (CDBS).   The exception to this is super-powered FM stations, which, regardless of their class, are limited to the higher of either the currently permitted -20 dBc level or 10 dB below the maximum analog power that would be authorized for the particular class of station, as adjusted for the station’s antenna height above average terrain.   The Audio Division’s web site contains an FM Super-Powered Maximum Digital ERP Calculator available here to assist super-powered stations with determining the maximum permissible Digital ERP.  Licensees of super-powered FM stations must file an application, in the form of an informal request, for any increase in the station’s FM Digital ERP. 

For power increases over 6 dB, licensees will be required to submit an application to the FCC, in the form of an informal request, for any increase in FM Digital ERP beyond 6 dB. Licensees wishing to operate with an FM Digital ERP in excess of -14 dBc must make a calculation and determine the station’s max permissible Digital ERP as detailed in paragraphs 17 through 20 in the Order, available here.  


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Last month, the FCC released a Public Notice requesting further comments on the proposal to increase the power of HD radio operations.  We have written about that proceeding a number of times, including posts here and here.  The increased power for the digital radio signals has been sought by many broadcasters who believe that current HD radio power levels do not  produce strong enough digital signals to penetrate buildings and fully serve radio markets.  On the other hand, other broadcasters fear that the increased power for the digital signals will create interference to existing analog stations operating on adjacent channels.  Today, the FCC set the dates for the filing of these additional comments – comments are due on July 6, with replies due on July 17

While comments have already been filed on the proposal to increase digital power, the FCC has raised a number of specific issues on which it wants comments, especially in light of the studies sponsored by NPR in cooperation with a number of other broadcasters, which seek to do a comprehensive review of the interference potential of higher powered digital operations.  NPR is shooting to have that report to the FCC in September.  The specific questions raised in the new FCC notice are:

  • Whether the FCC should wait to decide on the power increase proposal until after the NPR study is done
  • Whether current operations by radio stations operating in HD, and the various tests that have already been run, demonstrate the need for higher power operation on a permanent or provisional basis
  • Whether new standards of interference to adjacent channel stations should be adopted, and if the interference should also protect LPFM stations
  • Whether there should be specific procedures adopted to resolve any interference issues that do arise. 


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Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


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