On Friday, the FCC finally took action in its long-awaited AM revitalization rulemaking proceeding.  Friday’s order came in three parts – one adopting certain changes to FCC technical FCC rules and also adopting procedures for AM stations to acquire FM translators, a second asking for comment on a series of additional proposals looking to further change certain AM rules, and a final section a more preliminary inquiry looking at longer term policy changes to the AM rules.  While not providing everything some AM proponents may have wished for, the order does promise some immediate help for AM stations – including steps to, in the short-term, bring FM translators to many of the AM stations that feel these translators are necessary for their continued survival.  Today, we’ll look at that aspect of the order – the proposals to make available FM translators to help AM stations.

As we have written (see our articles here and here), there was a major controversy at the FCC about whether or not to open a window, restricted to AM licensees, letting them file for new FM translators, or to instead provide a process where AM stations would need to buy existing translators to provide FM service for their stations.  In Friday’s order, the FCC promised both.  Initially, in 2016, it will open a two-part window during which it will waive its minor change rules so as to allow AM licensees to buy an FM translator authorization anywhere within 250 miles of its AM station, and “move” that translator to its AM market to operate on any available FM channel in that market.  Later in 2017, it will open a more traditional window for any AM that was not able to acquire a translator in 2016 where that AM will be able to file an application for a new FM translator. There are many details associated with each of these windows.

In deciding to open the 2016 window in which the definition of a minor change for an FM translators will be waived (a minor change now requires that the old translator and the new proposal have overlapping 1 mv/m contours, and also be technically mutually exclusive, for the most part restricting channel changes to channels three up and three down from the current channel), the FCC observed that there have been thousands of new FM translators granted by the FCC in recent years as a result of the FCC’s 2003 FM translator filing window.  While several hundred of those translators have already been put to use as translators for AM stations, the FCC felt that there were enough other translators to provide many AM stations with FM service, if these translators could be relocated to serve the communities in which the AM stations are located.  While the FCC had earlier this year rejected the “Tell City” waiver proposal to allow a translator to move into an AM station’s service area on any frequency that was available in that community (see our article here), the same concept advanced in the Tell City wavier proposal is really what the FCC has adopted in this proceeding – with even greater leeway as to the distance that the translator station can be moved.

With this blanket waiver of the minor change rules, the FCC will allow an AM licensee to enter into an agreement to use any translator located within 250 miles of the AM station to rebroadcast the AM station, and immediately apply to move the translator to an area that is within both the 2 mv/m contour of the AM station and within 25 miles of the AM station’s city of license (the FCC proposed to change this rule to allow an AM station to locate a translator anywhere within 25 miles of the station, even if that area is not within the 2 mv/m contour – though that change may take some time to be adopted).  Not only can an AM owner apply to move the translator, but the application can be for any channel that works in the area of the AM station – even if that frequency has no relationship whatsoever to the translator’s current channel.  So, for instance, an AM owner can buy an FM translator authorized to operate on 93.3, and move it to the AM’s service area to operate on 107.9 – if 107.9 works from an interference standpoint in the area of the AM station.  In effect, buying the translator allows the AM station to open its own private window for the filing of an application for a translator in their community.

This waiver will be available if the AM buys an existing translator, or if the AM owner already has such a translator – and it will work if the translator is only a construction permit and has never been constructed.  Having a rebroadcast agreement with a translator owned by someone else will apparently also work.  The FCC even indicated that it would extend the expiration date of translator construction permits that expire during the waiver window if the AM licensee promises to quickly construct the translator station.  The application to move the translator to the AM’s community can be filed as soon as an assignment of license application is on file – it does not need to wait until the purchase is actually consummated.  Given that the frequencies for these translators will be awarded on a first-come, first served basis, filing an application quickly will be important for AM stations.

There are some strings attached to such translators, however.  Any translator relying on this waiver will have to continue to rebroadcast the AM station for 4 full years.  Thus, licensees can’t move the translator to serve an AM station, and soon thereafter decide to redirect its use to the rebroadcast of an HD channel or some other FM station.

The FCC will allow Class C and D AM stations (ones with low power and daytime-only operations) to have the first crack at this waiver policy – having 90 days to file a waiver application before bigger AM stations will have a shot to seek a translator of their own.  After the end of the 90 day window, any AM station can take advantage of this minor change waiver policy for an additional 30 days.  All of this will happen sometime early in 2016 – well before any regular translator window could be opened even if the FCC were to start planning for that window today (and, because of the TV incentive auction, practically speaking, no new auction window can open until after FCC’s Auction Division finishes the mammoth task of administering that TV auction).  Given the ability of this waiver process to begin and produce results quickly, without needing the staff of the Auction Division, the waiver process offers the benefit of quick results for AM licensees.

The filing window for these waivers will likely open in early 2016.  The FCC has instructed its Media Bureau to spend 3 months reaching out to AM stations to educate them about the process, and to simplify the process so that it can aide small independent stations. The FCC even suggested that the Media Bureau might try to create tools to simplify the search for available translators and available translator frequencies.  However, given the one-shot that stations have to find an acceptable translator frequency, and the fact that translators are required to cease operations if they cause any interference to any operating FM station, even outside that station’s protected contour, AM stations are probably going to want to use an engineer experienced in translator operations to insure that the translator is likely to work in their market without any such interference issues.

While some have expressed concerns that big-market stations could dominate a process like that announced by the FCC, the FCC believes (as do a number of consulting engineers that I have discussed this proposal with) that the opportunities in most major markets will be few – as there simply will not be many open frequencies on which a translator can operate in those markets.  As translators must cease operations if any interference to a regularly used FM signal is created, trying to squeeze a translator into a spectrum-crowded big market is risking having that station knocked off the air by an interference compliant.  No AM licensee should be bidding to buy a translator for an AM station if there is no FM spectrum hole in their market on which a translator can operate without creating interference.  Given the number of translators already operating in larger markets, plus the recently granted LPFM stations and the already tight FM band in most markets, there simply won’t be much room for FM translators in big markets, thus reducing the risk that stations from those markets will foreclose smaller market stations from acquiring a translator through this waiver process.  Big market stations are unlikely to risk big bucks buying translators that may create impermissible interference.

Even if stations are not able to find a translator to buy and move in the 2016 waiver window, they will have another chance, with traditional windows for applications for new translators to be opened in 2017.  An initial window will be open to AM stations that did not get a translator through the 2016 waiver process, open to Class C and D stations.  Only after these AMs are given the first crack at any open FM spectrum that may exist in their geographic area, and any mutual exclusive applications have been resolved either by technical amendments or other means of resolution (including, as a last resort, in an auction), will a window be opened for other AM stations.  Translators acquired in these windows will be permanently tied to the AM station – not just for the 4 years that applies to translators moved during the 2016 waiver window.

Obviously, there is lots to think about for AM licensees – and lots of opportunities for many stations.  It is time to look at the many issues that are only touched on here, so that stations can be ready to move fast during the filing windows that will be coming their way in the next two years.