At today’s FCC open meeting, the Commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rule Making ("NPRM") to begin the process of implementing the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, passed by Congress last year, and to chart a path to the licensing of new LPFM stations. (See our earlier posting here regarding the Local Community Radio Act of 2010.)
In a recent speech before the Community Radio Conference, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn suggested that the proposal to reallocate Channels 5 and 6 for FM radio use had merit and should be considered further. That proposal is already before the FCC, and ripe for decision – so it could theoretically be adopted tomorrow. However, the proposal is not backed by all. While Commissioner Clyburn may think that the idea bears more exploration, there seems to be significantly more consideration that is necessary before a decision on the pending proposals can be made. What are these proposals, and what is standing in the way of a reallocation?
As we have written before, the proposals have been made to take TV Channels 5 and 6, which are immediately adjacent to the FM band, and reallocate them to radio broadcasting. The pending proposals include suggestions that LPFM stations could be located on the new FM channels that could be created, that new space for noncommercial radio operations could be created and, if they operated digitally, there would even be room to move the entire AM band to Channel 5. While some have suggested that any relief from such a transition would be long in coming, as radios would need to be manufactured, in fact that process might not be as prolonged as suggested, as the frequencies used by these television channels are already used for FM radio in Asia. Radios already exist that could pick up these channels (at least for analog reception). However, television interests have opposed this reallotment, but it may well be the broadband plan which could have the greatest impact on the consideration of this issue.
When the Low Power FM service was first authorized, it was as a "secondary service," though a recent court decision shows how that secondary status is becoming less and less a reality. A secondary service is traditionally one that can be allotted where there are no other uses for a particular frequency, and which is subject to being bumped off the spectrum should there be another demand for that spectrum by a "primary" user. LPFM stations were originally supposed to provide service to areas between full-power FM radio stations, and to be bumped off the air if there was a new FM station authorized or a change in the frequency or power of an existing station. A decision of the Court of Appeals released earlier this month , upholding an FCC order giving more protections to LPFM stations, puts this secondary service into question.
The Court decision upheld the Commission’s decision, about which we wrote here, determining that waivers of second adjacent channel interference limitations between LPFM and full power stations should be permitted to help preserve LPFM service. In addition, the Court upheld the FCC’s process in adopting a new "interim" policy which provides that, where an LPFM is providing 8 hours a day of local programming and would be knocked off the air by an upgrade or city of license change of a full-power station, the LPFM station could apply for a waiver of its secondary status, and there would be a rebuttable presumption in favor of such a waiver. If the waiver is granted, the LPFM station would be preserved, and the application of the full-power station dismissed. Thus, effectively, LPFM would no longer be secondary, but instead will have assumed a primary, protected status.
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.
At its meeting today, the FCC decided to revamp its Ownership Report filing process – requiring all stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 on November 1 of this year – even stations that have just filed those reports in the normal course in the last few months. All stations will have to file every two years thereafter – on November 1 of every other year. Reports will also be required from Low Power TV stations and Class A TV stations, which have not in the past had to file reports. Reports will also be required from stations that are owned by an individual, and by general partnerships in which all of the partners are individuals (or, in the FCC’s legalese, "natural persons"). In the past, such stations did not have to file reports as any change in ownership would have required, at a minimum, the filing of a Form 316 short-form assignment or transfer application. Finally, the Commission will require the reporting of the interests of currently non-attributable owners who are not attributable simply because there is a single majority shareholder in the licensee.
The FCC is not asking for this information because it wants to track improper transfers, but instead so that it can gather information about the racial and gender make-up of the broadcast ownership universe. This information has been required on ownership reports for the last ten years, but the FCC did not believe that the system was extensive enough to capture all information about the ownership of broadcast properties, as so many stations were not covered by the requirements. Why does the FCC want racial and gender information about the owners of stations? To potentially take more aggressive actions to encourage minority ownership. The FCC has considered such actions in the past, but has not felt that it take actions specifically targeted to minority and female applicants, as there was no record of past discrimination in the broadcast industry. The government can constitutionally only make racial or gender-based decisions if these decisions are to remedy the effects of past discrimination. To justify such acts, the government agency must demonstrate the past discrimination – and these new filing requirements are meant to gather that information through what is called an Adarand study. In the recent past, when it adopted certain diversity initiatives for designated entities (like the ability of a designated entity to buy an expiring construction permit and get an extension, which we recently wrote about here), the Commission had to define a designated entity as a "small business" defined by SBA standards. Chairman Copps today said that this definition did not truly benefit diversity as favoring small businesses "generally benefit white males."
The FCC has an open proceeding pending to allow AM stations to use FM translators. As we have written, while this proceeding continues, the Commission is allowing AM stations to rebroadcast their signals on FM translators on under Special Temporary Authority. In a case decided today, the FCC made clear that this is only…
Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial. In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor. These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement. The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.
The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses. Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address). But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business. They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today"). They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ). The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor. In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in. The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length.
Tomorrow’s FCC meeting was to consider the proposal to allow AM stations to use FM translators on a permanent basis (see our post here). However, it is not going to happen – the FCC released a Public Notice today removing that item from the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. While a number of other items…
The Digital Television conversion has allowed the FCC to reclaim significant portions of the TV spectrum for wireless and public safety uses – television channels above 51 will no longer be used for broadcast TV at the end of the analog to digital transition. But, as part of the FCC’s Diversity proceeding (see our post here), a proposal dealing with the other end of the TV spectrum is being considered – whether to remove Channels 5 and 6 from the television band and instead use these channels for FM radio. These channels are adjacent to the lower end of the FM band. Because of this adjacency, the existence of TV Channel 6 in a market can limit the use of the lowest end of the FM band (used for Noncommercial Educational stations) to avoid interference to the TV station. Similarly, Channel 6’s audio can be heard on many FM radio receivers, a fact that has recently been used by some LPTV operators to use their stations to deliver an audio service that can be received by FM radios (see our post on this subject). In comments filed in the Diversity proceeding, parties have taken positions all across the spectrum – from television operators who have opposed using the channel for anything but television, to those suggesting that the channels be entirely cleared of television users and turned into a digital radio service. Proposals also suggest using the band for LPFM operations, and even for clearing the AM band by assigning AM operators to this band to commence new digital operations.
In comments that our firm submitted on behalf of a group of noncommercial FM radio licensees who also rebroadcast their signals on a number of FM translator stations, we suggested that Channel 6 could provide a home for LPFM operations, instead of trying to squeeze those stations into the existing FM band. There are currently proposals to squeeze more LPFM stations into the FM band by supplanting some FM translators (see our summary of some of those proposals here). In these comments in the Diversity proceeding, we pointed out that, as there are currently radios on the market that receive 87.9, 87.7 and even 87.5, using these three channels for LPFM service would provide an immediate home to these stations, and far more opportunity for than LPFM would have in the already congested FM band. These opportunities would exist even in most of the largest radio markets in the country, except in the handful of markets where a Channel 6 television station will continue to operate after the digital transition. By adopting this proposal, the service that would be provided by FM translators would not be threatened.
Just over a week ago, the FCC decided to freeze the dismissal of FM translator applications of applicants who had more than 10 applications still pending at the FCC. As we have written, the FCC had ordered all applicants in the 2003 FM Translator filing window to dismiss all but 10 of their remaining…