tolling of construction permits

As we wrote on Friday, the government shutdown affects many aspects of FCC operations – and could affect the ability of the FCC to hold its regular monthly meeting, now scheduled for January 30. With the FCC likely shut down for most of this week, just before closing, the FCC released its agenda for the January 30 meeting (which would normally have been released this week – 3 weeks before the meeting). One interesting item on the agenda was a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to change certain aspects of the criteria used to evaluate applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations and LPFMs, and the operations of those new stations after a construction permit is issued. The draft NPRM is here. As with all draft items released with the agenda of an upcoming FCC meeting, the draft is subject to change before that meeting.

It appears that the NPRM was not prompted by any single group representing noncommercial broadcasters, but instead raises a number of issues and problems that have been raised before the FCC in comparative cases in the last decade, which use a “points system” process to determine which mutually-exclusive noncommercial applicant should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding applicants preferences on factors such as whether they have few other broadcast interests, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks. The NPRM also looks at the restrictions on what successful applicants can do, once they receive their construction permits to build new stations – including the length of LPFM CPs, the transferability of those CPs, and restrictions imposed on changes to certain NCE technical facilities after a CP grant.
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When building a new radio station, the FCC gives broadcasters three years in which to construct.  The deadline for construction can only be extended for limited reasons (referred to as circumstances that justify "tolling" of the permit) – for a short term equal to the period that an Act of God (e.g. a hurricane, blizzard or flood

The recent decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which overturned the FCC’s 2007 rulings on newspaper-broadcast cross ownership and on diversity initiatives, took an unexpected turn today.  The FCC issued a Public Notice announcing that it would immediately stop giving "Eligible Entities" an advantage in certain instances – most particularly the extension of construction permits for new stations that are close to their expiration dates.  In the FCC’s 2007 Diversity Order, the Commission, to encourage more diversity in broadcast ownership, allowed "eligible entities", i.e. small businesses under SBA definitions, to acquire construction permits for new stations that were close to expiration, and to get an additional 18 months in which to construct the station.  In most other circumstances, the FCC will not extend a construction permit (absent some limited "tolling events" that will give applicants a limited amount of time to construct – but just the amount of time that a limited unforeseen event takes out of the usual 3 year construction period).  The 18 month extensions given to Eligible Entities have become an important way of saving construction permits about to expire when the original permit holder could not complete construction in the given 3 year construction period.

Today’s decision takes away that opportunity to extend unbuilt construction permits.  And the ruling goes even further, pulling the rug out from under recent grants of CP extensions – even ones that have already been granted, unless the extensions have become "final," i.e. no longer subject to reconsideration or appeal.  Those extensions granted in the last 40 days are subject to this order, and if these CPs have an initial expiration date that has already passed, they will be canceled.  This will no doubt cause some great consternation among parties who have purchased a construction permit in reliance on an FCC order extending the permit by 18 months, and may even have taken steps to construct the station since purchasing it, and now find themselves with a permit that has already expired.  The Commission makes no suggestion why some other remedy consistent with the Court’s order, but not so harmful to parties that relied on prior Commission policy, could not have been adopted – perhaps a new "tolling event" giving applicants a limited period of time to get a station on the air before the CP was canceled.  Sellers no doubt relied on the prospects of a pending sale (and simultaneous extension) to stop taking last minute extraordinary efforts to get a station constructed before the CP expired, and Buyer’s relied on the FCC order extending a CP to close purchases.  Given the potential for some entities to suffer greatly by this ruling, look for appeals to be filed.


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As part of its order in it proceeding to encourage diversity in broadcast ownership, the FCC adopted a number of new rules, including a rule allowing parties holding construction permits for new broadcast stations to sell those permits to "qualified entities."   The buying qualified entity would then then get 18 months to construct the new station, even if the construction permit would otherwise expire in less than 18 months.  Under prior policy, an FCC construction permit would expire 3 years after it is issued, with no real opportunity for extension (though the construction period could be "tolled" for the period that certain impediments to construction existed, i. e. litigation over zoning, FCC litigation over the validity of the permit, or Acts of God that temporarily stopped construction – but only for the limited period that such an impediment existed).   The new rule was adopted to encourage the sale to new entrants to broadcast ownership who could purchase construction permits that might otherwise expire.  Today, the FCC issued some clarifications of the new rule.

The clarification was issued principally to set out when the sale must take place in order for the buyer to qualify for the 18 month extension.  The FCC’s staff looked at the literal language of the new rule, and concluded that the sale must be approved by the FCC and consummated before the expiration date of the construction permit in order for the buyer to get the 18 month extension.  If the sale is not completed before expiration, the permit would expire.  Thus, the Commission warned applicants planning to take advantage of this new rule to file for the FCC approval of the sale at least 90 days before the expiration of the permit, to give time for the FCC approval of the sale and a consummation.  However, because of the uncertainty of the rule, the Commission decided that it would allow any party wanting to buy an unbuilt construction permit and who files to acquire that permit by May 31 to get the 18 month extension, even if the permit expires while the FCC application for approval of the sale is pending.  But after June 1, the buyer will not get the extension if the sale is not completed before the expiration of the permit. 


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