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FCC’s LPFM order will make 2013 a good year for community radio

Next October future community broadcasters will be able to apply for more new low-power stations than ever before. On Tuesday the FCC released the text of its 6th report and order on the implementation of the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) that was passed last Friday. As Matthew noted last Friday, the decision contains mostly good news for community radio advocates and future LPFM broadcasters. New LPFM stations will be permitted closer to full-power stations on the dial, Tribal Nations will be eligible to own multiple LPFMs and the FCC will give a little more consideration to stations that make promises for better local service.

Big Win for the 2nd Adjacent and Common Sense

The big win for LPFM was the decision on 2nd adjacent spacing waivers, which will permit low-power stations to be spaced closer to full-power stations on the dial, providing more opportunity for new community stations in the nation’s biggest urban markets. In a boost for common sense, the Commission explicitly acknowledged that LPFM stations are just like translator repeater stations that operate at the same power levels. Translator stations already are permitted to operate on the 2nd adjacent. Therefore, the FCC decided to apply the same requirements to LPFM stations that apply for a 2nd adjacent frequency as are already applied to translator applicants.

The Commission specifically criticized the concerns raised by the National Association of Broadcasters and NPR, which both opposed 2nd adjacent waivers for LPFM, even though they paradoxically support such waivers for translators. The FCC writes,

“Neither NAB nor any other commenter has offered evidence to support the claim that granting second-adjacent waivers that satisfy the LCRA requirements will harm audio quality or disrupt the expectations of listeners… Moreover, we note that many FM translators successfully operate on second-adjacent channels, often at higher effective radiated powers… We believe LPFM stations can operate just as successfully.”

In order to obtain a 2nd adjacent waiver an applicant will have to demonstrate that “no actual interference will occur, in the same manner as FM translator applicants.” Providing a little bit of relief to potential applicants, the FCC will permit them to propose lower effective radiated power levels as low as 50 watts at an antenna height of 30 meters, and to use a directional transmission pattern, in order to meet interference constraints.

The Commission also chose to treat LPFM stations like translators when it comes to interference complaints. Those filing interference complaints must be “bona fide listeners,” who are “disinterested… (and) without a legal stake in the outcome.” The complainant must also cooperate with FCC staff investigating the complaint. If the interference is verified by the commission, then the LPFM station must “suspend operation immediately,” until it eliminates the interference or demonstrates that it is not responsible for interference in the first place.

LPFM stations will be eligible to own their own translator repeater stations, too, allowing them to fill in problem reception areas or slightly extend their listening area. Each LPFM licensee may own a maximum of two translators, which must receive their programming directly over the air from the master LPFM station. The service area of the translators must also overlap that of the commonly owned LPFM, and may be no more than 10 miles from the LPFM in top 50 markets, or no more than 20 miles from the LPFM in smaller markets.

Boosts for Tribal Nations, Student-run Stations and Localism

Acknowledging the ability of low-power stations to serve Tribal Nations, they were given the ability to own two LPFM stations, with each feeding no more than two translator stations. All other LPFM licensees are limited to owning one station.

The Commission also gave a little more leeway to schools that want to build student-run stations. Already a school that owns a full-power license for a station that is not student-run may also own an LPFM that is student-run. But in the last licensing window if there were any competing applications, then that school’s application was automatically eliminated. For the next licensing window that school’s application will not be automatically cancelled, permitting its application to compete with others according to the standard rules and criteria.

With regard to that criteria, the Commission has a point system it uses in order to choose winners when there are multiple applicants competing for a single frequency. In order to promote service to Tribal lands, the FCC has added one point for Tribal Nation applicants who will provide such service.

Several LPFM advocates, such as Prometheus, asked the Commission to impose a local program origination requirement in order to enhance local service over and above stations that primarily air an automated feed of non-local programming. The FCC declined to create such a requirement, saying that it is concerned that it would be a burden potentially threatening the viability of stations which may otherwise have difficulty staying on air. The Commission already awards a point for stations that promise to air locally originated programming.

However, the FCC did decide to add a point for stations that pledge to maintain “a meaningful staff presence” in a “publicly accessible main studio that has local program origination capacity for at least 20 hours per week between 7 am and 10 pm.” The Commission will also award a “bonus point” for applicants that promise to produce locally originated programming and maintain a staff presence at a local main studio, meaning they’ll receive three points in total.

No 10-watt, 50-watt or 250-watt stations (yet)

Finally, many community radio advocates were hoping for the FCC to finally begin licensing 10-watt LP10 stations, or to create new 50 watt LP50 or 250-watt LP250 classes of service. The Commission declined to do any of these things. LP10 was part of the FCC’s original LPFM service, but only 100-watt stations have been licensed. So the FCC decided to admit the obvious, that it has no plans to open an LP10 license window, saying that 10-watt stations don’t make efficient use of spectrum and will be too challenged to reach and develop an audience. It nixed LP50 stations for the same reasons.

While the Commission acknowledges that the LCRA does not limit the power levels for LPFM, it decided against LP250 in part because there are too many issues to investigate. At the same time, the Commission leaves open the door to exploring a 250-watt LPFM service in the future.

A Good Year Ahead for Community Radio

The FCC is requiring that a minimum of 5 to 8 LPFM eligible frequencies are preserved in all markets after it finishes processing the backlog of translator applications. Combined with the new 2nd adjacent rules this means we should expect new low-power community stations in many of the nation’s largest markets, including those that had no LPFM eligible frequencies under the old rules.

Now that the Commission has clarified that LPFM 2nd adjacent waivers will be handled under the existing rules for translators, the picture should become clearer for just how many new LPFMs there will be in the densest urban centers. On the whole, the FCC’s decisions indeed add up to good news for community radio in 2013.

REC Networks has compiled a summary of changes in the 6th Report and Order that go into more detail than what I’ve covered here. I learned about it while I was writing this post, so I haven’t yet read all of it myself. But given REC’s record of excellent engineering reports and coverage of LPFM, I have no doubt one will find it quite complete.



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