On Nov. 29, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission released a public notice that a petition for rulemaking was filed by an AM licensee urging the FCC to adopt rules for the permanent licensing of AM synchronous booster stations. The rather-generic looking notice necessarily did not provide any context for the storied history of AM synchronous booster stations, and the nearly 30-year effort to establish licensing standards for this service.
Initially, it should be noted that the proposal referenced in the public notice was actually submitted in January 2014 in connection with the FCC’s brainstorming proceeding to modernize the AM band. Out of that proceeding came the rules permitting AM stations to use FM translators, but the FCC did not act on the proposal to permanently license AM synchronous booster stations.
However, recent actions by the Media Bureau and the FCC have apparently elevated the need for the FCC to reach a final decision on whether to continue to authorize AM synchronous boosters.
Specifically, the same AM licensee that submitted the 2014 proposal has been battling with the Media Bureau since 2009 to obtain an authorization for a new AM synchronous booster station approximately 35 miles from its main AM station. The Media Bureau initially rejected the application because the booster would have extended the main station’s protected service area. On reconsideration, the Media Bureau agreed that the FCC’s experimental authorization rules do not prohibit such expansion, but affirmed the decision to not grant the application for a new facility.
That decision was based on the Media Bureau’s conclusion that the authorization of an additional booster facility would not demonstrate anything “new or groundbreaking.” That decision was affirmed by the full commission in April 2016.
More recently, the Media Bureau granted renewal applications for the licensee’s three booster facilities, but indicated that the renewal was for a six-month period. At the end of the six-month period, the licenses for the booster facilities will be canceled, and the call signs deleted, thus bringing to a close the 13-year operation of the facilities. The licensee submitted a petition for reconsideration of the short-term renewals, and the matter remains pending.
Perhaps as a consolation, the Media Bureau agreed to move forward on the licensee’s 2014 proposal.
With the change-over in administration in late January, Commissioner Pai will have a leading role in the FCC (perhaps serving as chair), and the preservation and modernization of the AM service has been an important policy goal for him.
While Commissioner Pai supported the April 2016 decision to deny a new booster authorization, he expressed in a concurrent statement licensees should be encouraged to come to the FCC with ‘“legitimate experiments” for booster facilities.
The 2014 proposal primarily urged the FCC to adopt permanent licensing guidelines for AM synchronous boosters. In addition, it was suggested that the commission could authorize booster facilities that extended the service area of their associated AM stations, so long as the 2 mV/m contours overlapped. Moreover, it was proposed that the FCC not establish a cap on the number of booster stations that an AM station licensee could own, and that the booster facilities should be permitted to specify either directional or nondirectional antennas.
In the event that the comments filed by Dec. 29, 2016, and the reply comments due no later than Jan. 13, 2017, persuade the FCC to move forward with proposal, the FCC will release a notice of proposed rulemaking, and seek a second round of comments.
It is likely that the first round of comments will need to demonstrate that many of the technical issues that have prevented the FCC from moving forward in the past 30 years to authorize AM synchronous boosters have been resolved. It is also likely that the identity of the person leading the FCC post-January 2017 will strongly influence the FCC’s next steps.