For those who have been waiting with baited breath since 2013 to find out how the FCC plans to revitalize the FM dial: your wait is over. The Commission released its First Report and Order on Revitalization of the AM Radio Service late on Friday after its October open meeting. The order covers a few policy changes, and opens an inquiry on several other issues.
But the big solution for revitalizing the AM dial is… make it easier for AM stations to get stations on the FM dial.
All-HD Still M.I.A.
Before I dive deeper, it’s important to point out that the solution for revitalizing AM is not all-digital HD Radio broadcasts on the AM dial. Though the FCC poses the question of perhaps allowing all-digital broadcasts on the so-called “expanded band” from 1610 to 1700 KHz, it also acknowledges that “ the record is not yet established on the technical standards needed to establish interference protection for digital-to-digital stations… The absence of a technical record leads us to believe that it may be premature to discuss limiting the Expanded Band to all-digital operation(.)”
Some Tweaks to Actual AM
Lest ye think that the actual analog AM radio dial has been entirely left out, the FCC eliminated the so-called “ratchet rule.” In effect, this rule required stations to “ratchet back” their after dark broadcast power when making certain upgrades to their transmission plant. The unintended effect was that it discouraged AM broadcasters from making upgrades that might ultimately improve the quality of their broadcast for fear of losing transmission strength, which is why the rule has now been dropped.
The Commission also loosened requirements that existing stations to cover 80% of their community of license, along with eliminating the nighttime coverage standards for existing stations. These changes are intended to account for growth in community size and provide stations greater flexibility to relocate.
AM on FM
The AM on FM aspect of the order is far and away the most significant aspect of this order. Beginning in 2016 AM stations will have two opportunities to obtain translator repeater stations in order to rebroadcast their signal on the FM dial. Although they operate at low power–under 250 watts–and have similar technical constraints as noncommercial LPFM stations, translators are not the same as LPFMs in that they may be commercial or noncommercial, and may only rebroadcast programming from a full-power station. Translators may not originate programming.
First, next year the FCC will open a window to allow AM stations to buy a translator license or even a construction permit for a translator. That license and permit may be anywhere within a 250 mile radius of the AM station. Then the AM will be able to request to move that translator to any open FM frequency in its home market.
As John Anderson points out, there are hundreds of translator construction permits that are close to expiring. These all come from the last translator application window in 2003, which John terms “The Great Translator Invasion,” because an unprecedented 13,306 applications were filed, an overwhelming number of which came from applicants whose only apparent purpose was to resell them at a profit.
Second, in 2017 there will be a separate application window for AM stations to get new FM translators. Lower powered class C and D stations will have priority in this window. Stations that win translators will be required to hold on to them and maintain the AM rebroadcast for four years, ostensibly to put a damper on that window triggering another speculation frenzy, with AM broadcasters cashing in on the translator market instead of using the stations for their intended purpose. Still, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a chance to profit beginning in 2020.
Effect on LPFM
Given the similarity between FM translators and LPFM stations, and the close quarters in which they sometimes sit on the dial, some LPFM broadcasters are understandably a little nervous about a slew of new translators hitting the FM band. One reason for concern is the fact that the FCC considers low-power FM stations to be a “secondary service,” which means that they must endure interference caused by an adjacent full-power station, or can be made to move or modify operation based upon qualified complaints or approved changes made by an adjacent full-power station.
Luckily, translator stations are also considered a “secondary service,” which means they have no trump card over an existing LPFM. As Rec Networks explains, new translator stations on the same or adjacent frequencies must protect LPFMs and may not cause interference.
However, since LPFMs and translators can use many of the same spaces on the dial, the bigger question regards how many eligible LPFM frequencies will remain after the 2017 application window. Given that there are 4,692 AM broadcasters in the US, that’s a lot of potential applications and translators going on the air. Especially in the top 20 largest markets the space on the FM dial is extremely tight.
Folks who missed the 2013 LPFM application window and are hoping for another shot are probably in for a long wait, as well as an unwelcome surprise. If and when a new LPFM window opens up, it will be after 2013, and the opportunities will likely be far outside most major cities. It’s a stiff reminder that broadcast spectrum is truly a limited resource.
Revitalization or ‘Migration’?
What does this mean for the average AM radio listener? It means that in many cases she’s going to become an FM listener, choosing to tune in her favorite station’s translator in order to get a clearer, less noisy signal.
Depending on how existing stations take advantage of the new flexibility the FCC grants with this order, some may end up slightly cleaner broadcasts over the next five years or so. The next round of decisions also may offer minor improvements, particularly in the extended band.
But if all that sounds to you like it hardly revitalizes the actual AM dial, you’re not alone. John Anderson argues that this just begins the slide toward “the sunsetting of the band entirely.” He concludes,
“Broadcasters will argue that the economics of running an AM station are no longer sustainable, at which point they’ll lobby to “upgrade” FM translators into stand-alone primary stations along with a loosening of local market ownership caps to keep this ploy within the bounds of legality. In the end, these policy efforts should be categorized more accurately as migration, not revitalization.”
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