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A coalition of low-power FM advocates and stations are asking the Federal Communications Commission to delay implementation of new translator interference rules next month until their petition seeking to reverse a May decision is considered. The LPFM Coalition says the rulemaking fails to comply with federal law, including the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, since it is designed to provide improvements for full-power FMs and FM translators but not for LPFMs.

In the order adopted in May, the FCC said that multiple listener complaints from a single building or workplace will not count beyond the first complaint toward the six-complaint minimum when determining the existence of a “real and consistent interference problem.” That’s not sitting well with the LPFM community. The Coalition says the FCC failed to justify why its new rules “effectively ignore” multiple listener interference complaints from a single building even if it that building is very tall, such as a skyscraper with hundreds or even thousands of units, or extends for one or more square city blocks, encompassing more occupants than found in several square miles in areas with large lots and smaller scale low-slung buildings.

“It’s unacceptable that the FCC would ignore complaints from millions of people of color in urban areas and college students who are more likely to live in large apartment buildings,” said coalition member Vanessa Maria Graber, who is station manager of WPPM-LP Philadelphia (106.5). “Their right to listen to community and college radio without interference should be prioritized and included in any complaints about encroaching translators.”

The LPFM Coalition is also challenging the Commission’s decision to use the new rules to decide pending interference complaints. It says federal law requires that all rulemakings only impact future standoffs. Left unchallenged, the LPFM community says months-long battles to eliminate interference could instead come to an abrupt end with a decision that would make it harder for listeners to hear low-power stations’ programming.

Based on what the LPFM Coalition contends are “numerous statutory violations” and other “legal infirmities” with the May order, in a Petition For Reconsideration filed Monday it says the “most appropriate action” would be for the Commission to issue a stay to the order’s mid-August effective date. “At a minimum, the Commission should stay those specific rulemaking aspects specified in this petition and either rescind those provisions or issue a notice of further rulemaking to fix them.

“As the demand for spectrum continues to increase, prioritizing translators—new to the FM band—over stations that originate local programming, is a misapplication of the current rules and neither serves the local public interest or passes the common sense test,” said coalition advisor Clay Leander, president of the LPFM advocacy Common Frequency.

The LPFM Coalition is made up of the groups Common Frequency, Prometheus Radio Project, and the Media Alliance, as well as 104 individual low-power stations from around the U.S.

More Flexibility & Certainty

After two years of review and collecting comments from broadcasters, the Commission in May unanimously approved rules that officials said would not only provide broadcasters with more certainty in how translator inference issues would be looked at, but also give the industry more flexibility in devising ways to resolve conflicts. The new guidelines largely followed suggestions handed to the agency by the National Association of Broadcasters in 2017.

Under the new rules, the FCC will use a station’s outer 45dBu contour limit. That includes establishing a minimum number of additional listener complaints that must be included in any waiver seeking to establish a claim of interference outside the complaining station’s 45dBu contour.

The order adds more “flexibility” to its rules by allowing FM translator stations to change frequency to any available same-band channel as a minor change in response to interference issues. It notes channel changes are “a relatively low cost way to resolve interference with little or no reduction in service area.” The FCC also establishes a minimum number of listener complaints, ranging from a low of six to a high of 25, proportionate to the population the complaining station serves, that a station would need to submit with any claim of interference. Interference complaints often devolve into questions about the veracity of the allegations. In an effort to reduce those fights, the FCC approved guidelines for specific things a listener must say in their complaint. The FCC also approved several moves that translator owners must take to keep their signals on the air. They include working with the listener to help resolve the problem.

The Media Bureau reports there were a record 8,126 FM translators and boosters licensed as of June 30. That’s an increase of 5% compared to a year ago with nearly 200 new translators signing on since the start of the year. At the same time, the number of low-power FMs has remained largely steady. The FCC says there were 2,178 LPFMs licensed at the end of June. That’s just seven more than a year earlier.