After months of showing interest in a proposal to allow FM booster stations to originate programming, the Federal Communications Commission is indicating it will require support from some of the industry’s key players before it’s willing to consider approving Geo Broadcast Solutions’ ZoneCasting technology for deployment.
GBS met with staff in the FCC’s Audio Division this month, according to disclosure filings, and were told that in the near-term the Commission has “no plans to actively consider” the company’s system. It uses several boosters around a main transmitter to produce geo-targeted programming. FCC staffers were said to still have questions about whether the setup, which GBS has branded as ZoneCasting, fits in with the intent of the FM booster rules which currently restrict coverage to the protected service contour of the primary station. The FCC also purportedly suggested that additional analysis might be needed concerning questions about interference and the legal consequences of the proposal.
ZoneCasting has been gaining traction at the FCC in recent months with GBS holding several meetings with high-ranking agency staff, including a face-to-face with chairman Ajit Pai in November according to disclosure filings. The door is apparently still open to the proposal, but insiders say GBS has been advised to first secure approval for a booster-based system from the National Association of Broadcasters and the tech-National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC)—that’s the group that’s jointly sponsored by the NAB and the Consumer Technology Association and is made up mostly of engineers, scientists and broadcast technicians.
A GBS spokesman told Inside Radio they see the FCC’s move as more of a slow lane than a speed bump and said, if nothing else, ZoneCasting is now on the agency’s radar. Far from throwing in the towel, he said they look forward to making a case for the technology to NAB and the NRSC in the coming weeks. “These are presentations that need to be made to show them why we think this is a viable technology,” the rep said. The hope is that once the NAB and NRSC are onboard, the FCC may be willing to take a second, more serious look at the proposal. While timelines are notoriously difficult to pin down, it does mean that ZoneCasting is unlikely to be licensed for commercial use any earlier than 2019.
Making FM Radio ‘Hyper-Local’
The idea to use a system to use several boosters around a main transmitter to produce geo-targeted programming was filed by GBS with the Commission in 2012. Unlike FM translators, which simultaneously rebroadcast the signal of a primary AM or FM station on a different frequency, booster stations essentially “fill in” translator stations on the same frequency as the main station.
During the pasts decade GBS has conducted three field tests to prove its technology works, mostly recently with the late-2016 demonstration in Milwaukee using Alpha Media’s rock WIIL-FM (95.1), which utilized 11 booster signals to geo-target its programming. Earlier tests were done using experimental authority in the Salt Lake City market in 2010 and in the Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL market in 2011.
In allowing the idea to be rolled out to the industry, GBS has argued it would enable FMs to provide “targeted ‘hyperlocal’ programming” directed to specific portions of their service area, something it has noted dovetails with the FCC’s longstanding goal to improve broadcast localism. It also says it would help put the radio industry on firmer financial ground. Several radio owners told the FCC last summer they support the use of the technology, as did one radio lender. Monroe Capital, which has been lending money to radio companies for two decades, told the FCC even if it’s only for spot breaks, such technology would help the industry overcome recent revenue challenges by attracting advertisers who may avoid radio since they don’t target an entire metro area. Some emergency management officials have said they also see ZoneCasting as a possible way to fine tune delivery of Emergency Alert System messages.
Boosters Go Big For Now
Even as GBS advocates for ZoneCasting in Washington, the company is already in the market with a companion product that also utilizes booster stations. But instead of offering localized or “zoned” content, stations simulcast their main channel with the emphasis on improving overall coverage. And because FCC rules currently allow FM stations to deploy boosters to fill in signal coverage gaps, broadcasting identical content on every booster, what it brands as MaxxCasting hasn’t required any regulatory approval.
GBS says a number of large market stations are now using MaxxCasting, including Spanish Broadcasting System’s regional Mexican “La Ley 107.9” WLEY-FM Chicago, which was scheduled to flip the switch on Tuesday night. Other stations in New York, Boston and Chicago are also using the booster configuration or plan to in the coming weeks. A GBS rep said Northeast Broadcasting Company’s adult alternative “92.5 The River” WXRV Boston offers a good example of what stations aim for. Since it began using MaxxCasting, GBS said its Nielsen ratings have risen 1.5 to 2.1 (6+) as its signal coverage has improved.