FCC 375

How many translators should a noncommercial broadcaster be allowed to apply for in the upcoming filing window for FMs on the left end of the dial? That is a question the Federal Communications Commissions is considering as it gets ready to begin accepting new station applications for stations between 89.1 and 91.9 FM. The answer, according to religious broadcaster Educational Media Foundation, should depend on where the station would be located.

The FCC proposed (MB Docket No. 20-343) a ten-per-company cap on applications in a public notice released last month. But EMF says in order to bring more programming choices to rural Americans, the limits should only apply to rated markets. It has proposed the FCC take a two-pronged approach where a broadcaster would be allowed to submit ten applications that it wishes the FCC to consider as its “primary” applications. Beyond that, the company would also be allowed to submit additional applications beyond those ten for signals located outside of Nielsen’s markets. The company said those rural applications could have a secondary status, proposing the FCC only dismiss them if there is another broadcaster seeking the signal and the competing applications cannot be resolved during the settlement period.

“EMF believes the FCC can meet its goals of expediting the processing of applications while also allowing for the increase of service to rural areas,” it said in comments filed with the agency. “Adoption of the EMF proposal will allow for the expansion of service choices provided to the millions of residents of areas outside the largest radio markets,” the company added.

The idea may not be as novel as it seems. EMF pointed out that when the FCC processed applications filed during the 2003 FM translator window, the Commission limited applications in urban areas, while at the same time it took a more relaxed view of application limits outside of those areas to encourage rural service. Similar strategies have been used when low-power TV stations were licensed.

Less, Not More

But not everyone is in favor of such a move. The low-power advocacy REC Networks has proposed the FCC cut its application cap in half and only allow a broadcaster to submit five applications rather than the ten proposed. REC founder Michelle Bradley told the FCC that her analysis shows that in the upcoming window there will be no FMs available in the top 100 markets regardless of the application cap, putting the focus on rural signals.

“With reduced opportunities in highly populated areas, this window will be an opportunity for rural new entrants that can provide first localized service into not just the community of license but also to adjacent communities that would otherwise not be served,” said Bradley. “Our rural communities deserve more localized broadcast services that meets the needs of their communities. This is something that full-power translator networks that are programmed out of California and other states are unable to accomplish.”

Bradley said even with the FCC’s point system for determining winners of noncommercial stations, it is entirely possible that local groups could lose out to bigger broadcasters. That could hamper the efforts of some LPFM operators to “graduate” to full-power signals.

No Window Date Yet

The FCC accepted reply comments on the upcoming filing window proposal through today (Nov. 30). The Media Bureau has not yet announced when the filing window will open however, saying only it will be some time in 2021.

The Media Bureau says it anticipates interest in noncommercial FMs will be robust. While it is impossible to say how many filings will be submitted, the Commission said it expects to receive a “large volume” since there is no filing fee for noncommercial FM applications, there are no ownership limits in the reserved band, and there has not been a filing window for noncommercial FMs in more than a decade.

The Commission last December approved new rules governing how noncommercial FM and LPFM licenses are awarded when there are competing applications for the same signal. That involved revisions to the point system, changing the tie-breaker process and reducing the need for mandatory time-sharing.

Once the noncommercial FM filing window process has been completed, the FCC has said it expects to open another filing window for low-power FMs. But advocates do not expect that to happen until 2022.