Despite the telework restrictions in place at the FCC, regulatory life goes on, with the Commission continuing to process applications and deliver decisions every day.  One of those decisions released yesterday clarified the FCC’s rural radio policy, and its application to noncommercial FM stations.  The rural radio policy was adopted a decade ago to preserve program diversity in rural areas by restricting the move of radio stations into more urbanized areas through city of license changes.  The policy restricts rural stations from changing their city of license to a location from which the station could place a principal city contour over 50% of any urbanized area (see our articles here and here for more details on this policy).  The decision yesterday upheld prior decisions in the same proceeding which concluded that, for noncommercial reserved-band stations, the appropriate contour to analyze is the 60 dBu contour.  If that contour would cover more than 50% of an urbanized area after a city of license change, the change will generally be prohibited for any station not now providing such coverage over an urbanized area.

The licensee in this case had argued that this decision was illogical, as the rural radio prohibition for commercial stations is only triggered when the 70 dBu contour covers more than 50% of the urbanized area – not the 60 dBu contour.  The FCC rejected that argument, saying that the policy being advocated was more appropriately raised in a rulemaking, not in an application case like this.  The FCC’s finding in this case would mean that two broadcasters, one commercial and one noncommercial, could propose moves from rural locations to the same new city of license and propose to operate from the exact same antenna with the exact same power levels and height above average terrain, and the noncommercial application would be denied as it would be deemed an application for the urbanized area because its 60 dBu contour covered more than 50% of that area, while the commercial station would be granted as its 70 dBu did not reach 50% of the urbanized area.  Two stations providing exactly the same service to the same urbanized area would be treated differently – one as if it serves the urbanized area, the other as if it would not.
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The FCC’s decision in its rural radio proceeding addresses numerous radio issues – some of which seem to provide a solution in search of a problem.  In an era where the President has called for agencies to review their decisions to access how they will affect businesses and job creation, some aspects of this rural radio decision appear to be moving in the opposite direction – imposing new hurdles on broadcasters trying to improve their operational facilities. While the FCC in this decision adopted largely uncontested rules that would promote the development of new radio stations on Tribal lands, the Commission also adopted rules making it harder for radio stations to move from more rural areas into more urban ones – rule that were almost universally condemned by broadcasters. The decision also restricted the ability of FM translators to “hop” from the commercial to the noncommercial band and vice versa, and adopted rules that codified the determination of how AM applications are determined to be “mutually exclusive” when filed in the same window for new or major change applications.  The changes to the procedures for consideration of AM and FM station allotment and movement are summarized below.  The other changes made in this proceeding will be discussed in a subsequent post on this blog.

Easily the most controversial of the decisions made by the Commission in this proceeding was the conclusions reached as to the movement of AM and FM radio stations from more rural areas into more urbanized ones.  We wrote about some of the concerns raised by broadcasters last week.  Many of the new rules and policies adopted by the Commission were ones feared by broadcasters – though many of the policies are still undefined, and how they are enforced may well determine their ultimate impact.  That impact may well take years to sort out.  Regardless of the ultimate impact on the actual movement of stations, there is no question that these rules will require far more paperwork from broadcasters seeking to allot new channels and from those seeking to change the cities of license of existing stations, and open more moves to challenge, making the process slower and more expensive.


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