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Channel 6 “radio” stations could be silent by 2012

Currently the FCC is accepting comments on a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the low-power television service [PDF]. Unlike full-power TV, LPTV is still analog. Now the FCC is considering a timeline for closing that gap.

The fact that LPTV is still analog is why some stations on channel 6 have been able effectively to operate like radio stations, due to the fact that their audio program sits just left of the FM broadcast dial, receivable at 87.7 FM. It’s a little corner of radio broadcasting I’ve been covering for over a year now.

As I predicted back in March, the FCC is now set to close this loophole by requiring LPTV stations to go digital, which would make their audio channels inaccessible to FM radios. The only question is when this will happen. The Commission has suggested that the transition might be completed sometime in 2012–so, in less than 2 years. However, it is also seeking comment on how realistic it will be for stations to meet that timeframe. At the same time the Commission notes that a 2012 deadline would be three years after the full-power transition. The Commission argues that LPTV stations should be well aware that a digital transition was imminent, and also points out that Congress created a special fund to assist low-power stations convert to digital.

However, the Commission does leave open an option for LPTV stations to remain analog all the way through 2015 if they are broadcasting on or move to the VHF band. The reasoning here is that the FCC would like to reallocate UHF spectrum for wireless broadband, and that the VHF TV band now sits underutilized. On the surface this might give a little more time to the channel 6 “radio” stations, even if it’s really just delaying the inevitable.

Nowhere does the FCC acknowledge these channel 6 stations operating as FM radio outlets. However, comments filed by NPR [PDF] are intended to make sure the FCC doesn’t miss them. These comments report that NPR officials met with FCC officials in the Media and Enforcement Bureaus wherein,

NPR urged Commission action clarifying that LPTV channel 6 stations operating as ersatz radio stations are not operating in compliance with the Commission’s Rules.

The Commission is accepting reply comments on this proceeding until Dec. 17. We’ll keep watching to see if any of the channel 6 “ersatz radio stations” submit responses to NPR. And, of course, we’ll report whatever decision the FCC ends up making regarding the future of analog LPTV, and therefore TV on FM. Stay tuned.

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