The low-power community has remained on the sidelines as a series of rule modernization proposals were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission benefitting full-power FMs and AMs. Now it’s LPFM’s turn. The Commission on Thursday adopted a proposal that embraces a series of technical suggestions and revisions to the rule book submitted to the agency in recent years. Taken together, the FCC says the technical changes will allow LPFMs to improve reception and increase flexibility in transmitter siting while at the same time maintain the interference protection limits that have allowed the stations to coexist alongside full-power stations.
The most noteworthy shift is a decision to allow LPFMs to use directional antennas. The Media Bureau concluded that with some safeguards, the move would provide “significant flexibility” to operators as they squeeze onto a crowded radio dial. “Such flexibility would most likely be of the most use in situations where an LPFM station can use contour protection, such as to demonstrate that it should receive a waiver of second-adjacent spacing requirements,” the order says.
The FCC will also permit LPFMs to use custom-built antennas designed for specific locations instead of only “off-the-shelf” models with parameters set by manufacturers. It says that might make it easier for stations to relocate in areas with many stations and few transmitter sites. Some advocates have suggested it might also help LPFMs that have become short-spaced with FM translators. It’s an issue that’s become more prevalent as the FCC has increased the number of translators as a way to help AM stations.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the New Jersey Broadcasters Association (NJBA) had both urged the FCC to reject the proposals, but their protests were unsuccessful. The Media Bureau says it didn’t find any compelling reason to restrict the use of directional antennas by LPFMs.
But the FCC rejected the idea that more directional antennas will lead to inference issues, calling those protests “largely unfounded” since LPFM remains a secondary service and the same minimum spacing and maximum power requirements would dictate operations. “We also do not anticipate substantial use of directional antennas because they would not be necessary or cost-effective in the majority of circumstances,” the order says. It also notes that directional signals could permit more LPFMs to be located along the Canadian and Mexican borders.
The FCC also dismissed the NAB’s argument that low-power stations have frequently violated technical rules. The Media Bureau says the LPFM service is now two decades old, and while stations still operate with limited budgets, it has observed that more operators are enlisting the service of consulting engineers.
Allow Ownership of FM Booster Stations
The FCC already allows low-power stations to simulcast on up to two FM translators. But the Commission approved changes that will also permit LPFMs to own and operate FM booster stations without first securing a waiver. Advocates say it will help stations where poor reception due to terrain hampers reception.
Critics, including NJBA, said the Commission shouldn’t allow LPFMs to operate a booster unless it also permits Class A FMs to increase their power level from 3,000-watts to 6,000-watts to combat potential interference. Such an argument didn’t get far with the Media Bureau however, which said because boosters would transmit an LPFM within its existing service area there’d be “no impact on reception of other stations.”
The Commission also approved revisions that redefine the types of LPFM facility changes that qualify as “minor” in order to make it easier for stations to relocate their facilities. If approved, the FCC would allow LPFM site changes up to 11.2 kilometers, or up to any greater distance that would result in overlapping 60dBu service contours between the existing and relocated facilities. While LPFM advocates had pushed for more, the proposal drew an objection by NJBA, which expressed concerns such a change might cause interference to full-power stations. But the FCC pushed back against that, saying it sees “no connection” with how it defines a minor change.
Among the other changes the FCC approved is a clarification of the rules that state LPFMs must alert the Commission if they are off-air for more than ten days and request Commission authority to remain off-air more than 30 days. The same rule applies to full-power stations.
The FCC is also approved changes to the rules that govern third-adjacent channel interference. The Media Bureau said it wasn’t aware of any complaints of third-adjacent interference to date, calling the proposal a “small change in wording” rather a significant policy change.
No More Power For LPFMs
For the past five years low-power advocates, including REC Networks, Prometheus Radio Project and Common Frequency, have said LPFMs should be allowed to increase their power to up to 250-watts. They argued many LPFMs have a difficult time penetrating structures, in part because their antennas often sit on top of low-rise buildings and not large broadcast towers. But the order revealed there are limits to how far the FCC is willing to go.
The agency concludes increasing LPFMs to 250-watts would “complicate” the licensing process, and would be “inconsistent with Congress” and the Commission’s intent when establishing the LPFM service.” Instead, it says that by allowing low-power stations to secure translators, it would achieve the same goal as increased power limits. The NAB has repeatedly opposed the suggestion, arguing it could create more interference.
The FCC has also deferred any decision on whether to eliminate the distance separation rules between LPFMs operating in the reserved band on the left end of the dial. That’s because the Media Bureau is currently considering the question of whether low-power TV stations operating on channel 6 should be allowed to continue functioning as radio stations. The decision on those so-called “Franken FMs” could have implications on the LPFM proposal, it said, tentatively concluding the agency will be in a better position to assess the situation after July 2021 when the television spectrum repack process has been completed.
EAS Requirements Would Remain
Even after low-power proponents withdrew their request that LPFMs be exempted from Emergency Alert System requirements the FCC nevertheless examined the request. And it has concluded that it agrees with the NAB, which has argued that the public should get alerts from whatever station they’re listening to.
The FCC says LPFMs already have fewer EAS requirements than full-service stations and stated that the requirements are not “overly burdensome.” But the Commission also makes one small change that would reduce the number of EAS units required for LPFM stations operating on a time-shared basis as long as they’re under the same roof. The FCC calls that a “reasonable way to promote increased EAS participation by LPFM stations.” It’s similar to the full-power rules that permit co-owned, co-located facilities, such as AM and FM stations licensed to the same entity and at the same location, to monitor using just one EAS decoder.
LPFM Call Letters Stay At Six
The Commission also went along with a Media Bureau recommendation that the current LPFM call letter format – which include “-LP” – be maintained. Some advocates had suggested the –LP suffix be dropped to put low-power stations on a more even playing field with full-power stations. But the FCC says the six-letter call sign is still needed in order for the agency to keep track of which station it’s dealing with. It also helps the public easily determine what they’re listening to. It notes just like commercial stations, low-power operators are able to market themselves through slogans and images that are only loosely associated with their call letters or frequencies.
Pai Thinks LPFMs Are Ready
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket Nos. 19-193) was released last July. FCC Chair Ajit Pai has said he believes the segment of the radio industry is ready for some modernization. “This maturation means that LPFM stations should be able to take advantage of additional engineering options to improve reception,” he said in a recent blog post. Pai also acknowledged the programming that several low-power stations are offering listeners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly called the changes approved Thursday a “narrow set of improvements” to the FCC’s rules with “safeguards” to ensure certain changes do not harm other FM broadcasters. “I remain sympathetic to the commenters who voiced concern regarding the potential deployment of more directional antennas by LPFM stations and have to trust that proofs of performance will provide adequate insurance against misuse,” he said, adding, “This is an important issue that I intend to watch closely as these rules are implemented.”
The latest data from the FCC shows the number of LPFMs declined by ten during the first quarter. It said there were 2,159 LPFMs licensed as of March 31.