The relationship between low power FM stations and both FM translators and full-power FM stations will be addressed by the FCC at its open meeting on November 30 – the only issues on the FCC's agenda for that meeting. We expect that two controversial matters will be discussed – (1) the effect that the thousands of FM translators that remain pending from the 2003 translator window will have on LPFM availability and how to deal with those applications and (2) the interference considerations between translators and full-power stations, including issues such as second-adjacent channel interference waivers and the situations in which LPFM interference to full-power stations will require that the LPFM cease operations. For LPFM advocates and applicants, issues are also outstanding about the qualifications for LPFM applicants in an upcoming (yet-to-be announced LPFM filing window), including whether there will be obligations placed on LPFM operations for specific amounts of local program origination.
The FM translator issue has been a long and contentious one. In 2003, during the last FM translator window, thousands of applications for FM translators were filed. LPFM advocates have contended that the grant of these applications would preclude LPFM opportunities. After processing applications for a couple of years, the FCC froze the processing of all the remaining applications, and in 2007 announced that applicants would only be able to prosecute 10 of their remaining pending applications. There were many objections filed to that decision. Last year, the FCC announced a much more granular process for determining which translator applications could be processed, looking on a market-by-market basis at the prospects of LPFM interference, and deciding that translator applications would only have to be dismissed where interference limited LPFM opportunities for a given number of LPFM stations. The Commission also decided that a cap of 50 applications should be imposed on the number of applications that one entity could continue to prosecute, and limited applicants to prosecuting one application per market. See our summary of the FCC decision on the translator-LPFM issues here. These issues are all subject to petitions for reconsideration.
On the interference to full-power stations, the FCC decision will be one of how to interpret the Local Community Radio Act (which we summarized here). The LCRA allowed LPFM applicants to ignore spacing requirements to full-power FM stations, and imposed significant interference remediation obligations on LPFM operators if their operations caused interference to full-power FM stations. The order to be discussed at the November 30 meeting should discuss how the LCRA obligations will be interpreted, including issues as to the circumstances in which a second-adjacent channel waiver of the LPFM spacing obligations toward full-power stations will be granted, and in what circumstances an LPFM station that starts operations will have to cease such operations in the event of interference to a full-power station's regular listeners. See our summary of these issues here.
Proposals on LPFM power levels are also on the table. The Commission has authorized but never licensed LPFM stations operating at 10 watts, and has now proposed to do away with this class of station that some think will create more interference than new broadcast service. At the other end of the scale, the Commission has proposed creating a new class of LPFM station operating at 250 watts outside of major markets. We would expect that these issues and more will be considered at the upcoming meeting.
As FM translators have become more important to broadcasters as a way to reach more people with programming previously available only on AM stations and FM HD channels, the fate of the translator applications is very important. Full-power FM operators are also concerned about the prospect of increased interference from low power stations. And the LPFM advocates want these issues settled, so the long-delayed filing window for new LPFM stations can finally open next year. The November 30 meeting will be a very important one for all of these groups.