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LPFM Watch: Big Competition in LA Still Unresolved; The 250 Watt Battle

No new construction permits for low-power FM stations were issued this week, as the FCC tackles the remaining 7% of applications left to be processed. Amongst those are several MX groups of applicants competing for a single frequency.

Southern California is home to two of these groups, with the one in Los Angeles being particularly messy. There are 18(!) applicants still vying for 101.5 FM. 16 of them have allied themselves into three groups each pooling their members’ points together in the hopes of beating the others and then sharing the frequency. The largest group has seven disparate applicants like Ballet Folkloric Ollin, Prism Church of Los Angeles and The Emperor’s Circle of Shen Yun. The other two groups have four and five applicants. Not surprisingly, the largest applicant group leads the other two by ten points (35 vs 25), though a successful or listenable seven-way time-share is difficult to imagine.

It’s not just the size of the full MX group that is delaying a final decision, but the fact that the Media Bureau has to pick through objections filed against 14 of the applicants. Going by that measure, the group of four may have an advantage, simply because there are none filed against any of those applicants: Englewood High School, The Church in Anaheim, Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District and Long Beach Community Television. Now, this is only an advantage if any of the objections against their competitors are found to merit disqualification or a reduction in points sufficient to give the group of four the edge.

So, with only the most difficult situations left for the FCC to resolve, most likely we can expect only a trickle of new construction permits from here on out.

Reply Comments Open for 250 Watt Proposal

As Jennifer reported last week, the comment window closed for the proposal to let LPFM stations have the opportunity to increase maximum power from 100 watts to 250 watts. Now a 30-day window to submit reply comments is open. This is an opportunity for interested parties to refute, argue or concur with the comments that have already been filed.

In last week’s Radio Survivor Bulletin e-mail I gave an overview of the comments coming from parties with strong interests in translator stations, which are technically eligible for the same spots on the dial as LPFMs. My findings were a tad surprising.

As a bonus I’m including this story here. Please subscribe to the Bulletin (it’s free!) so you don’t miss out on any of this kind of news and analysis.

LPFMs vs. Translators: The Battle of 250 Watts

June 15 was the deadline to file comments with the FCC on REC Networks’ proposal that the FCC offer an opportunity for low-power FM stations upgrade power to as high as 250 watts, conditions permitting. A total of 505 comments were filed, more than 100 of them coming in on the last day.

Not surprisingly the country’s largest broadcast lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters, weighed in against the proposal. NAB argues the proposal is “premature,” since apparently even more time is needed to test the long-debunked theory that LPFMs pose an interference threat to full-power stations. The more material argument is that NAB wants more room left for new translator repeater stations, especially for AM stations that have “waited patiently” for their chance at the spectrum land-grab.

Translators and LPFMs have been at odds for the last decade, since they are both classes of low-powered stations. However, until the Local Community Radio Act of 2011, translators were more privileged than LPFMs, permitted to be placed closer to other stations the dial, despite howls from the NAB that such close spacing for LPFMs–now permitted–would erupt in sonic chaos on the dial. Translators also have a 250 watt limit–the same REC now proposes for LPFMs. But because of their similarities translators and LPFMs vie for the same spaces on the dials, hence the NAB’s displeasure.

So, as I looked through comments I was particularly keen to see if there are other translator supporters in opposition. While I cannot claim to have made an exhaustive search of all 505 comments, I was pleasantly surprised to find nuanced positions coming from groups with strong interests in translators. They seem to be generally OK with rulemaking proceeding being opened, even if they have some concerns.

Most prominent amongst these groups is the National Translator Association, which advocates on behalf of both radio and television translator stations. Yet, the group’s support for a rulemaking proceeding is unequivocal: “The National Translator Association stands firmly in support of the within entitled petition as filed by REC Networks. The petition raises a significant number of valid points that should be developed in the context of a Rulemaking proceeding and its public record,” says the NTA’s comments.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the group wholeheartedly supports the entire REC petition, so much as the NTA wants to have all the issues raised and heard. Fair ’nuff. Even so, the group does slip in the hope that a window for translator applications is opened if a successful 250-watt rulemaking also brings about another LPFM licensing window.

The Educational Media Foundation is an enormous operator of translator stations, which uses them to broadcast its Christian music networks K-LOVE and Air1. While not a booster of the REC proposal, the group writes that it, “conceptually has no problems with LPFM stations operating with 250 watts, or with providing these stations with second-adjacent channel protections.”

However, “such changes should be made only in the context of a broader review of the protections afforded to LPFM stations and, more importantly, the protections to existing full-power and translator stations that LPFM stations themselves are required to provide.” So, EMF doesn’t so much oppose a rulemaking based on the REC petition, as it does ask for a thorough review that would subject higher power LPFMs to the same standards, with regard to interference complaints, that translators are held to.

EMF also expresses the concern that a LPFM power increase is a slippery slope. If stations don’t find reception problems are abated by going to 250 watts, “will REC or some other proponent be back at the FCC in a few years asking for additional power?”

Finally, there are some pretty scathing complaints about LPFM contained in the comments submitted by Nunzio A. Sergi, owner of Summit Media Broadcasting of West Virginia. Sergi has a bone to pick with LPFM operators in his state, which he alleges are operating at power levels in excess of what they are licensed for, or are acting as de facto networks. In one case, he claims that a “LPFM operator has different members of his immediate family and friends as licensees of FM translators and at least one of the FM translators runs the LPFM station programming into another county in the middle of a metro.”

Sergi goes on to argue that the difference between a commercial operator and a LPFM operator is that the commercial one “is invested in their operations, they follow the FCC regulations for fear of losing their huge investment, while a LPFM operator has nothing to lose(.)” Thus, he concludes that, “Whatever little FM spectrum is left today, needs to be allocated to helping AM stations survive, not for LPFM service.”

To be fair, if Sergi’s allegations of LPFM rules violations are true, those stations ought to be investigated. Still, he clearly paints with a very broad brush. Similar instances of translator and full-power stations being out of spec, or bending the rules, can also be easily found, too.

However, besides the NAB’s more staid and studied objections, Sergi’s were the most strenuous I found. I am also pleasantly surprised that there was no pile of comments from NPR and other public radio groups dragging out the interference dead horse once again, nor pushing for more translator space. Since there are relatively few AM stations in the public radio world, I guess that fight isn’t a high priority. Either that, or the public radio establishment would rather wait to see if the FCC actually opens a proceeding.

That, of course, would be the next step if the Commission is, on balance, convinced by the vast majority of 250-watt supporters on record. If a rulemaking proceeding is opened, then there will be another wave of comments, followed by reply comments, and plenty of political maneuvering, too. So, don’t hold your breath, but don’t give up hope, either.

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