All this year, the FCC has been busy processing applications by AM broadcasters to buy an FM translator or a translator construction permit, and to move the translator as much as 250 miles to rebroadcast an AM station. We wrote about the Commission’s rules for these translator moves, as set out in December, here. These translator moves have been very successful for many AM stations, giving them an opportunity to put their programming on an FM channel in their market for the first time. The waiver of the translator processing rules now in place allows a broadcaster to acquire a translator and “move” it to the market served by the AM as long as the move is no more than 250 miles. In the AM market, the translator can operate on any commercial FM channel that is available. Once the waiver period ends, except during very infrequent major change windows, translators can only be moved a limited distance where their existing operations interfere with the proposed operations at the new site. This requirement means that the stations usually need to stay on a channel three up or down from the currently authorized channel. So the current 250 mile waiver has provided unusual flexibility for many AM stations to essentially get a new translator on any commercial channel that works in their service area.
The Commission, in its AM Revitalization order (which we summarized here), has promised to open two additional windows at some point in 2017. In these windows, the first of which will be open to Class C and D AM stations only, AM stations that did not take advantage of the 250 mile waiver can apply for new FM translators to rebroadcast their AM stations. In some smaller markets, some station owners have decided not to spend the money to buy a currently authorized translator to move it in the current window, but instead to wait until 2017 to apply for a new one, believing that there is plenty of spectrum in those smaller markets on which to locate a new FM translator. Stations in larger markets, or located in areas where there are many FM stations already, have been more likely to use the 250 mile waiver to stake a claim on the spectrum that is available now in their markets, before a competing station takes that spectrum. For anyone wanting to immediately lay claim to an FM channel for a translator for an AM station, you have only a few weeks to do so under the current relaxed waiver standard – so if you are in that category, you’d better move quickly. We neglected to mention this in our summary of important regulatory dates for broadcasters in October – but it is obviously a deadline that should not be overlooked.