translator interference standards

At its open meeting yesterday, the FCC largely adopted the draft order on changes to its processes for resolving complaints about interference from FM translators to existing FM stations. Its final Report and Order adopting the new rules was released after the meeting yesterday. The general guidelines that we detailed in our summary of the draft order were adopted – so that complaints will generally be considered only when they are from within a primary station’s 45 dBu contour (with a potential for consideration of complaints from outside that contour through a waiver process, where the complaining station shows that there is a significant pocket of listeners outside that contour), and only when a threshold number of bona fide listener complaints have been filed.  When a sufficient number of complaints have been filed, the FCC will ask the operator of the translator to either resolve all complaints by resolving the interference complaints of each of the complaining listeners or by working with the operator of the pre-existing station. If no resolution can be worked out, the parties to the dispute are to engage a third party consulting engineer. FCC will make the final determination whether the interference has been resolved based on information provided by the third-party engineer. If the interference is not resolved to the satisfaction of FCC staff, a translator can be ordered off the air.

The biggest change from the draft order is in the number of complaints necessary to sustain a complaint in bigger markets. In the draft order, the Commission proposed that a station with millions of people in its protected service area might need as many as 65 listener complaints to sustain an interference objection. The Order adopted yesterday changed that tentative decision and instead capped the number of listener complaints that were needed to support an interference claim at 25 for stations with over 2 million people in their protected contour. The FCC also made clear that listeners cannot be offered payment or other inducement for submitting a complaint. Finally, the Commission decided that it would resolve all complaints in 90 days unless there was a compelling reason for more time. Once the FCC has determined that an appropriate number of interference complaints have been filed, it will notify the parties of that fact, and provide intermediate deadlines for submission of a remediation plan or other benchmarks as appropriate. If nothing is resolved in 90 days, and there are no unusual circumstances warranting more time, the FCC may order the offending translator off the air at the end of that period.
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The FCC last week released a draft order (available here) in its proceeding looking at revising the procedures to resolve complaints of interference by translators (and certain LPFM stations) to existing FM stations. The draft order proposes many changes to the current process. For the most part, these changes will provide more certainty to translator operators as to whether the new translator they are constructing will be subject to being forced off the air, while making it somewhat more difficult for full-power stations to sustain a claim of interference from new translators. We wrote about the FCC’s initiation of this proceeding here and here.

The headline in many reports about this draft order is the FCC’s tentative decision to allow translators that do cause interference to move to any available FM channel to resolve that interference. In the past, channel moves have been limited to moves to adjacent channels that would be considered a “minor change” by the FCC. In many markets, this will provide the translator operator more opportunities to continue to operate its translator if it does in fact create areas of new interference. Of course, in some spectrum-limited markets, there may not be an alternative channel on which a new translator can be authorized if it has to move off its initial channel (and interference complaints may well be more likely in such spectrum-limited markets as the translator operator may not have had many channels that were clearly free from interference concerns from which to select). But the proposed new rules would also make objections harder to support.
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July brings the obligation for each full-power broadcaster to add a new Quarterly Issues Programs List to their online public inspection file. These reports, summarizing the issues facing each station’s community of license in the prior three months and the programs broadcast by the station to address those issues, must be added to the public file by July 10. As we wrote here, these reports are very important – as they are the only documents legally required by the FCC to show how a station served the public interest. With the online file, these reports can be reviewed by anyone with an Internet connection at any time, which could be particularly concerning for any station that does not meet the filing deadline, especially with license renewals beginning again next year.

Also to be filed with the FCC by July 10, by full-power and Class A TV stations, are Quarterly Children’s Television Reports. While the FCC announced last week that it will be considering a rulemaking proposal at its July meeting to potentially change the rules (see its proposed Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here), for now the requirements remain in place obligating each station to broadcast 3 weekly hours of programming designed to meet the educational and informational needs of children for each free program stream transmitted by the station. Also, certifications need to be included in each station’s online public file demonstrating that the station has complied with the rules limiting the amount of commercialization during children’s television programs.
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May is one of those months where there are neither deadlines for EEO Public File Reports nor for any of the quarterly filings of issues/programs lists and children’s television reports. But the lack of these routine filing deadlines does not mean that there are no dates of interest in the coming month to broadcasters and other media companies. As seemingly is the case every month, there are never times when Washington is ignoring legal issues potentially affecting the industry.

May 10 brings an FCC meeting where two items of interest to broadcasters will be considered. One is a proposal to abolish the requirement for posting licenses and other operating authorizations at a broadcaster’s control point and to eliminate the requirement that FM translators post information about the station’s licensee and a contact phone number at their transmitter sites (see our post here for more details). The second is a proposal to modify the processing of complaints about new or modified FM translators causing interference to existing stations. See our summary of that proposal here. If adopted at the May 10 meeting, these proposals will be available for public comment after they are published in the Federal Register.
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The FCC yesterday released a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, to be considered at its open meeting on May 10, seeking to add more specificity to its rules for the resolution of interference by new FM translators. The FCC attempts to set out new procedures that it would use to decide if applications for new translators can be granted, and if new translators already granted and constructed can continue to operate, when there are complaints that the new translator will cause interference to existing FM stations and to pre-existing translators and LPFMs. Under current rules, the FCC will deny the application of a new translator if there are regular listeners of another station within the 1 mv/m of the proposed new translator, and a newly constructed translator will be required to cease operations if it cannot resolve complaints of interference to the regularly used signal of any other operating station – even outside of that station’s protected contour. Even a single listener complaint of interference that cannot be resolved from a listener who is not affiliated with the station can cause the FCC to order that a new translator be shut down.

In response to petitions filed by the NAB and a Philadelphia-area translator operator (see our summary of those filings here), the FCC has drafted this NPRM that, if adopted at its May 10 meeting, will put forward for public comment a series of proposals to make the interference complaint resolution process quicker and more objective. There is a general perception, both among full-power broadcasters who have complaints about translator interference, and among translator operators whose operations may be in limbo if subjected to interference complaints, that the current FCC process simply takes too long and is subject to manipulation and unforeseeable outcomes. With over 1500 new translators for AM stations likely to start operations shortly, with many potentially subject to interference complaints, many broadcasters have suggested that the FCC needs to act quickly to make the current system more objective – and to allow it to resolve complaints more quickly.
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At this week’s NAB Convention, issues about FM translators and pirate radio dominated the radio news from the sessions that featured FCC speakers. On the translator front, FCC Chairman Pai, in his speech to the convention, announced that there is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that has been drafted and is being considered by

The FCC yesterday issued a public notice extending the time for comments on a Petition for Rulemaking seeking, among other things, to create a Class C4 FM station with maximum power levels at about 12 kW, twice the power of the least powerful class of FM stations – Class A stations that are limited to 6 kW in power.  As we wrote earlier this month when we first addressed this topic, this request for comments is only a preliminary request seeking input as to whether the Commission should even consider this petition further.  Depending on the comments received, the Commission could do nothing at all, or they could adopt a formal notice of proposed rulemaking looking to adopt specific rules for the new service.  Comments on the proposal are now due on September 18, 2014, with reply comments to be filed by October 3.

What does this proposal request?  As stated above, the principal request is that a new FM class of station – a Class C4 – be adopted.  This class would allow Class A stations to approximately double their power to a maximum of 12 kW.  The petitioner points out that the current differences between the classes of FM stations is approximately 3 dB between all classes of FM stations, except for the difference between the current Class A and C3 classes, where the difference in signal intensity is about twice that amount.  Adding the C4 class would make the increases in power between the classes more uniform, and would allow many Class A stations to reach more people and to better penetrate buildings in urban areas.  Why aren’t all broadcasters in favor of this proposal?
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Determining how much interference to full-power FM stations is acceptable from LPFM stations is perhaps, in the long run, one of the most important issues discussed in the FCC’s two orders released two weeks ago clarifying the rules for LPFM stations.  The FCC’s proposals on this issue, and several others, has now been published in the Federal Register, asking for public comments by May 7, with reply comments due May 21.   As we detailed when we wrote about the proposals that have now been published in the Federal Register, while the FCC did away with strict mileage limitations on third-adjacent channel spacings between LPFM stations and full-power FMs as required by the Local Community Radio Act ("LCRA"), it did not totally eliminate all interference requirements.  Instead, it proposed a two-tier system requiring more remediation efforts by LPFMs that operate at less than what had been the required spacings, and lesser interference for stations that did observe the old mileage separations.  The May 7 comment deadline also applies to comments on the FCC’s proposals for second-adjacent channel waivers of the required spacings between LPFMs and full-power FM stations, and on changes to the service rules for LPFMs – including allowing them to operate at powers as high as 250 watts ERP in rural areas.

The ruling eliminating the third-adjacent channel spacing rule as required by the LCRA was published in the Federal Register yesterday, meaning that the rule becomes effective on June 4, but practically that should mean little until the FCC addresses the interference-complaint resolution issues addressed in the Further NPRM.  The abolition of the third adjacent channel spacing rules did leave in place one limitation, that LPFM stations cannot cause more interference than they can under present rules for stations that offer reading services for the blind

The Further NPRM also addresses second adjacent channel interference, proposing very strict rules that require an LPFM to cease operations if it creates any interference to a regularly used FM signal – even outside of the full-power station’s protected service contours.  This is essentially the FM translator interference requirement – which has, in the past, caused many translators to cease operations or change their technical facilities to protect full-power stations.  Further details on this proposal are available in our summary of the order.  That summary, however, did not address the proposed changes in the LPFM service rules, which we address below.


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