Tower Raising

In a move that could allow more low-power FMs to squeeze onto the radio dial, as well as open new technical opportunities for existing stations, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to launch a rulemaking that would revise several engineering and technical rules. “This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking includes additional changes to increase flexibility while maintaining interference protection and the core LPFM values of diversity and localism,” FCC Chair Ajit Pai wrote in a blog post announcing his plan to seek the support of his fellow commissioners at their Aug. 1 meeting. There are now 2,178 LPFMs, according to the Media Bureau’s latest statistics, and that shows the low-power service has matured and now requires “additional engineering options to improve reception,” Pai said.

The proposal (MB Docket Nos. 19-193) includes ending a prohibition on LPFMs from using directional antennas. While omnidirectional antennas work in most cases, advocates say being able to use directional antennas could help improve station coverage in markets such as San Diego and Tucson, AZ. They say stations should also be allowed to use custom-built antennas rather than rely on off-the-shelf models.

The Commission has tentatively concluded such a change is a good idea. “We believe that directional antennas, whether off-the-shelf or custom models, will not be used widely in the LPFM service due to their higher cost and limited necessity,” the draft order states. “The use of such antennas could, if properly engineered, provide significant flexibility to LPFM licensees subject to international agreements and to those that must relocate in areas with few available transmitter sites,” it adds. Yet among the questions the FCC has raised in the NPRM is whether LPFM licensees have the technical and financial abilities needed to design, construct, and maintain off-the-shelf and/or custom directional facilities. It also asks how situations should be resolved when LPFMs using directional antennas are thought to be the source of interference.

Ending TV Channel 6 Protections

The FCC also proposes a July 13, 2021 sunset date for the existing requirement that LPFM stations and other broadcast stations operating on the FM reserved band (88.1-90.9 FM) protect television stations operating on television channel 6. That’s the date that low-power television stations are scheduled to complete their transition to digital, following the 2009 move to digital by full-power TV stations. In situations when a low-power station could prove there would already be no interference to a nearby TV 6 station, the NPRM says they could secure a waiver to the rule before the July 2021 date.

The FCC reports there are currently nine digital full power television stations and 117 LPTV and TV translator stations operating on channel 6. Another 10 construction permits exist for stations that were displaced as a result of an incentive auction repacking process.

The Commission has tentatively concluded the move could be allowed. But it is looking for input into how the 26 low-power television stations currently using their signals as virtual radio stations at 87.7 FM should be treated. The FCC notes many of those stations are “specifically designed to serve diverse audiences” not currently served by traditional AM/FM outlets. The question has been kicking around inside the agency since 2014 but the Commission has in the past said it would put off making any decision until a later date.

The FCC would also permit LPFMs to use FM booster signals without obtaining a special waiver. The FCC says such a move would likely affect only a “limited number” of LPFM stations. “Permitting FM boosters may improve LPFM reception in areas with irregular terrain,” it says, noting such stations could already seek the same permission though the waiver process. It notes five such waivers have already been granted.

The FCC also says allowing the use of FM boosters is “in lieu of” permitting LPFMs to gain access to FM translators. Other than a limited exception allowing non-Tribal LPFM licensees to operate up to two FM translator stations if they meet certain requirements, most LPFMs aren’t allowed to own any non-LPFM station.

Among the other technical changes being proposed for LPFMs is a redefinition of what qualifies as a “minor change.” Under the proposal, an LPFM minor change would be one which either doesn’t exceed 5.6 kilometers or doesn’t involve overlapping 60 dBu contours of the station’s own existing and proposed facilities. The proposal would also make a minor alteration to the rules governing third-adjacent channel protection to full-power stations. The move would adopt interference protection language similar to what the FCC put in place for FM translators in May.

When the FCC launched the low-power service nearly two decades ago, Pai noted it was designed with “simple” engineering requirements. “The purpose was to make it easier for non-profit organizations with limited engineering expertise and small budgets to readily apply for, construct, and operate community-oriented stations serving highly localized areas,” Pai said.

No Power Boost For LPFMs

Despite tentatively agreeing to many of the proposals submitted by low-power advocate REC Networks, there are several other ideas the FCC has rejected. That includes a proposal that LPFMs be exempted from Emergency Alert System requirements. “When there is a serious matter warranting EAS activation, members of the public should receive alerts from the station to which they are listening at that time,” the FCC has tentatively concluded. It also agrees with the National Association of Broadcasters, which pointed out many LPFMs don’t participate in EAS testing. So one of the items it’s seeking public feedback on is how to increate involvement by low-power stations.

The FCC was silent on a 2015 proposal advocated by REC Networks, Prometheus Radio Project and Common Frequency that low-power stations 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 NAB has opposed the suggestion, arguing it could create more interference and noting Congress only authorized a 100-watt service.

‘The Fight Is Not Over’

Despite the few misses, the FCC largely adopted many of the proposals submitted by REC founder Michelle Bradley as ways she believes low-power radio can be technically better. “Overall, the NPRM is a move in the right direction, but it does fall short to address the actual issues that LPFM stations are actually facing,” Bradley said. She said she’ll continue to work with the commissioners, their staff and the Media Bureau to clarify some of the “misunderstandings” she believes they have on several issues. “Existing LPFM stations facing issues around interference, especially from translators and have no flexibility to move, despite the few changes proposed as well as potential new entrants who feel their community may be denied new service should contact me and tell me about their specific situations,” said Bradley. “The fight is not over, and we can’t give up.”

A major overhaul of the rules, such as is being proposed for LPFM, is the “writing on the wall” for a new filing window, according to Bradley. Based on her conversations with FCC insiders, she’s projecting the next LPFM filing window will be in 2022 or 2023, but thinks it’s possible one could open even sooner.