The seemingly never-ending debate on LPFM and translators has finally been given some clarity. After the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) was passed, the FCC needed to get its rules in order to be in accordance with the law. In March, the FCC passed two report and order actions and a further notice of proposed rulemaking to do just that.
Low-power FM has been somewhat crippled since its inception more than a decade ago, primarily by adjacent-channel interference protections and ownership restrictions. The LCRA removed the third-adjacent protection criteria, which LPFM supporter Prometheus Radio Project had been seeking in its efforts to grow LPFM service. The FCC actions provide more LPFM growth opportunities, but they also give translators a boost, including long-awaited action on the more than 6,500 pending translator applications filed in 2003.
Lee Petro's FCC Update column in this issue goes into some of the specifics of the FCC decision, but there are some points to consider.
The FCC's idea to introduce "floors" to determine LPFM spectrum availability in a market has merit in that it provides something other than random chance to determine LPFM opportunities. And the spectrum-limited market definition to better qualify (or disqualify) translator apps improves the chances for the LPFM side to find channels, albeit with the potential for some translator apps to be dismissed.
One major change is the that the FCC added a translator application cap of 50 (up from 10) for those who filed in 2003, but restricts applications to one per market in markets defined as spectrum limited. Applicants will have a window to whittle their applications down to meet these restrictions.
Another benefit for the translator licensees: AM stations can now rebroadcast on FM translators. While AM listening, with a few exceptions, is on a steady decline, allowing AM stations to retransmit on FM injects some life into the service. Translators won't save AM in the long run, but they can help the short term.
The second order brings the Commission's rules in line with the LCRA by, among other things, eliminating the third-adjacent channel protection. That channel protection had always been a stretch of reality. Full-power stations will rarely receive interference from the pea shooter LPFMs. This step alone will open the door to possibly thousands of LPFM stations.
The further notice of proposed rulemaking ponders the interference complaint process and the eligibility and ownership of LPFM stations to extend to native nations. In addition, the FCC seeks to ensure LPFM groups maintain their eligibility status after the construction permit is issued. Native nations are a natural candidate for a successful LPFM service, and LPFM is an ideal way to provide a community voice to an already a tight-knit community. Ensuring the ongoing eligibility to operate an LPFM service is also a logical action to avoid those who would take advantage of the rules.
The agency seeks comment on eliminating the 10W LPFM service and creating a 250W LPFM service. 10W propagates well in the open, but it just does not penetrate buildings well. 250W can cover a small urban area, and the power is still rather low compared to most full-power facilities. Some interference without third-adjacent protection may occur, but probably not much.
While the FCC hasn't solved all the LPFM and translator issues, it has at least taken some action to get things rolling again.