Last week, the FCC started a new proceeding through the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to review several restrictions that currently apply to Low Power FM stations. While doing so, it will also review the current rules, dating from the analog television days, restricting certain FM operations in the non-commercial reserved band of the FM dial where those operations are near Channel 6 TV stations. Comments will be due on this proposal 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, with Replies due 15 days later.

The LPFM proposals look at a number of issues. The Commission asks if LPFM stations should be allowed to operate with directional antennas, which are currently routinely barred given that these antennas may be more difficult to operate and maintain. When the rules were originally adopted, there was a fear that LPFM licensees, who may not have a technical background or substantial resources for engineering support, could not maintain those antennas so as to protect other FM stations operating on the same and adjacent channels. Similar concerns currently limit LPFM stations from using on-channel boosters to fill in holes in their service area. The FCC asks if these prohibitions can be lifted as the LPFM industry has become more mature, allowing LPFMs to use both directional antennas and on-channel boosters without risking increased interference to other stations.

The FCC also proposes to change the definition of a minor change for LPFM stations. Now, LPFM minor changes that can be made outside of an LPFM filing window are limited to site changes of a distance of 5.6 kilometers or less. The change would allow a move to be treated as a minor change, as long as the 1 mv/m of the proposed site overlaps with the 1 mv/m of the current site. A few other technical changes in the LPFM rules are also proposed.

The Channel 6 proposed change is the one proposal in this NPRM that is not limited to LPFM stations. Currently, the FCC rules limit the power and location of any station, LPFM or full-power noncommercial stations, in the reserved FM band (below 92 FM) where those applications are near to Channel 6 TV stations. The lower part of the FM band is adjacent to Channel 6. In the analog world, that meant that FM stations could interfere with the signals of Channel 6 TV stations. It also allowed TV stations, particularly LPTV stations, to transmit audio signals that could be heard on FM radios on 87.9 or 87.7 FM. In a number of markets, LPTV stations are offering audio services – which some have deemed “Franken FMs.”

In the digital world, the FCC suggests that the interference to Channel 6 should be much less or nonexistent, suggesting that LPFM or full-power noncommercial stations should no longer be required to protect Channel 6 operations. The FCC also asks if, at the end of the digital transition for LPTV stations in July 2021, LPTVs should still be able to continue to generate an analog signal to permit these virtual FM stations (see our prior posts on these stations here and here).

So watch for the comment dates on these matters affecting LPFM stations and full-power alike – likely due sometime this Fall.