Last month, the FCC released its proposal to restrict the movement of FM stations from rural areas into larger markets (which we summarized here). The proposals that the FCC has put forward would greatly restrict the ability of broadcast owners to move stations to cover larger population areas – in many senses reversing the decision of the FCC just two
Rural communities – do their radio stations need government protection? The FCC seems to think so, proposing a series of new rules and policies that restrict the ability of the owners of rural radio stations to move their stations into Urban areas. These rules would make it harder for entrepreneurs to do “move in” applications – taking stations from less populated areas and moving them to communities where they can serve larger populations in nearby cities. The Commission states that it is making these proposals to attempt to live up to its obligations under Section 307(b) of the Communications Act to ensure a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio services to the various states and communities in the country. While this may be a noble goal, one wonders if it is a solution in search of a problem. Are there really rural communities that have an unmet demand for missing radio services – and which can economically support such services? And do these proposals conflict with other goals of the new Commission, by effectively decreasing the opportunities for minorities and other new entrants from acquiring stations in major markets – by taking away move-in stations that are often the only stations that these broadcast station owners can afford in urban markets? These are questions that the FCC will need to resolve as part of this proceeding.
A Section 307(b) analysis is done by the FCC when it faces conflicting proposals, specifying different communities of license, for new AM stations or requests for new FM allotments. It is also required when an applicant proposes to move a station from one community to another, as the applicant must demonstrate that the move to the new community would better serve the objectives of Section 307(b) than would the current location of the station. In the past, the 307(b) analysis looks at several factors, or “Priorities.” These include:
- Service to white areas – when a proposed station will serve “white area,” an area where residents currently receive no predicted radio service (no “reception service” in FCC parlance).
- Service to gray areas – when a proposed station will serve areas that currently receive only a single reception service
- Provision of a first local “transmission” service – where the proposed station will be the first station licensed to a particular community, and thus the first station that has the primary responsibility to serve the needs of that community
- Other public interest factors – usually meaning which proposal will provide the service to the most people (with service to “underserved areas,” i.e. those that receive 5 or fewer “reception services,” getting somewhat more weight).
On Monday, the President signed into law a bill adjusting the reimbursement dates of the Low Power Television grant program by which LPTV and TV translator stations can seek a $1,000 grant in order to ensure that they are able to continue to receive and rebroadcast the signals of primary full-power television stations once the full-power stations complete the transition to digital television. In late 2007, the government announced the start of the LPTV Digital-to-Analog grant program designed to help translators and low power television stations continue their analog broadcasts after the February 17, 2009 conversion of full-power television stations to DTV. Specifically, the LPTV Digital-to-Analog Conversion grant program will provide funds to eligible translators and LPTV stations that need to purchase a digital-to-analog converter box in order to convert the incoming signal of a full-power DTV station to analog format for retransmission on the analog LPTV station. The program has been funded with a total of $8 million, which is available in $1,000 grants to eligible LPTV stations. As a result of the recent change, funds granted through the LPTV Digital-to-Analog grant program will available beginning in fiscal year 2009 (Oct. 1, 2008 – Sept. 30, 2009), rather than in fiscal year 2011. In addition, the recent bill also extends the availability of funding through fiscal year 2012.
Any low-power television broadcast station, Class A television station, television translator station, or television booster station that meets the following three criteria may apply for the grant to defray the cost of the digital-to-analog converter box:
- It is itself broadcasting exclusively in analog format;
- It has not purchased a digital-to-analog conversion device prior to February 8, 2006; and
- It is (or will be) re-transmitting the off-air digital signal of a full-power DTV station.
Applications for this grant program are being accepted until February 17, 2009. Priority compensation will be given to eligible LPTV stations licensed to 501(c) non-profit entities or LPTV stations serving a rural area of fewer than 10,000 viewers. Thus, priority is given to stations owned by translator associations and others that might not otherwise be able to afford the costs of converting the signals that they receive from analog to digital, and which might, without the grants, go off the air. More information on how to apply for such grants is available on the NTIA’s website here.
There are no items on the agenda for next week’s FCC meeting from the Media Bureau, so one might think that the "broadcast" community could ignore this meeting. However, there is one matter that will be considered that may well have an effect on the media landscape for the foreseeable future. That is the adoption of service rules for the 700 MHz spectrum – the remaining portion of the spectrum to be reclaimed from television broadcasters after the digital transition. Part of that spectrum has already been reclaimed and is beginning to be used by companies such as Qualcomm offering digital multimedia services such as the MediaFLO system, about which we have written before. The remaining portion of the spectrum that will be auctioned by the Commission by January 2008 and has the potential to provide significant high-speed digital wireless services to the public. However, anyone reading the communications press would realize that there is a major controversy over how that service will be provided.
The argument is over whether service will be provided on the new spectrum in an open manner – in essence a wireless high speed connection to the Internet where any service can get direct access to the consumer – or whether it will function more like the current systems run by the existing wireless carriers, where the carriers will be able to control the content that will be delivered to the consumer. This is, by no means an easy decision, and it is currently being debated in Congress and at the FCC.