FCC Building

Puerto Rico station owner Wilfredo Blanco-Pi’s recent battle with the Federal Communications Commission over his network of AM synchronous boosters has sparked renewed interest in Washington for whether to take a fresh look at what’s been a piecemeal patch to improving AM coverage areas. The FCC recently opened a comment period and the resounding cry from engineers and broadcasters alike is the time has come to move boosters from experimental to one of the permanent fixes for a struggling AM band.

The Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers (AFCCE) met with FCC chief Ajit Pai and his senior staff last month to promote the idea of permanent licensing of AM boosters. The engineering trade group backs the proposal as a way to more efficiently use AM spectrum and points out no interference complaints have arisen from their use in the past. It also backs the immediate reinstatement of Blanco-Pi’s right to power up his Puerto Rico boosters.

AFCCE board member Jon Edwards, who was among those that met with Pai, tells Inside Radio just having such a meeting is a positive development. “We have a lot of support from the industry on our end,” he says. “I think we were able to educate the chairman as to the reality of the situation and the benefits it would have. How much of a priority is made is a wait-and-see.”

The formal embrace of synchronous boosters has the backing of several station owners. Genesee Media Corp. president Brian McGlynn views proposals to change the rules to formally recognize boosters as part of the larger effort to help revitalize AM radio. “We see this as a reasonable way to boost nighttime signals in critical areas of the service area without substantial capital outlay for complex arrays,” he tells the FCC. McGlynn points to his company’s sports simulcast “The Team 1310/1590” WRSB/WOKR Rochester, NY as a prime example of how boosters could help broadcasters. Both stations go directional at night with the use of complex directional arrays being the only way to overcome sharp reductions in population coverage. While technically feasible, McGlynn says it’s “economically unrealistic” due to increases in land values and the overall costs associated with construction of directional antenna arrays. That would cost in hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says. Another option would be to boost the station’s output, but the electricity costs would be “unsustainable,” McGlynn adds.

It’s an idea that Kansas City’s talk/adult standards KCXL (1140) owner Peter Schartel agrees with, telling the FCC rather than using a “brute force” strategy of increasing station’s power in an attempt to overcome the ever-increasing noise floor caused by growing RF interference, a “true revitalization” would be to allow the use of boosters to deliver a more listenable signal.

“As an AM broadcaster I would prefer to invest in technology with a future rather than completely rebuild my entire transmission system to handle a big, expensive, power-hungry transmitter which may be overpowered in a few years as noise increases,” Schartel says. KCXL recently added the Kansas City-licensed translator K275KQ at 102.9 FM but he credits equipment manufacturers and engineers for devising a cheaper alternative for “mom and pop” owners such as him. “Having already benefited from the lifeline of a small FM translator, I know firsthand that smaller, closer signals are the best way to reach more listeners,” Schartel says.

Engineers Embrace AM Boosters

Broadcast engineers are often skeptical of quick-fix ideas but the booster proposal has won the backing of several of the large broadcast engineering firms who say their work on AMs that have held experimental licenses has proven to them the technology can benefit both the station owner and the listener.

Ron Rackley, partner in the engineering consulting firm of du Treil, Lundin & Rackley, says synchronous boosters first appeared in the 1920s as Westinghouse worked to improve coverage of Boston’s WBZ (1030), and the FCC dropped the ball decades ago by not launching a rulemaking on whether boosters should be permanently licensed. “It clearly is time to recognize the usefulness of modern synchronous transmitter technology to improve service to the public in the AM band and for the experiments to end,” Rackley tells the FCC.

Hatfield & Dawson Consulting Engineers president Stephen Lockwood tells the FCC that the current generation of transmitters has far superior performance compared to earlier technology, with better power control, precision frequency control and the ability to synchronize the audio between facilities. “We believe that these improvements will provide high quality service,” he says.

Equipment manufacturer Kintronic Laboratories backs that up and says boosters would be of “significant benefit” to Class C and D stations with limited nighttime coverage, as well as some other AMs—most Class Bs but even a few Class As—with deep nighttime directional-antenna nulls. “All these stations could greatly benefit from the improved population coverage at night and during critical hours, particularly where urban/suburban sprawl has expanded beyond the stations’ existing strong-signal zones,” Kintronic president Tom King tells the FCC.

If there’s an upshot to those many years of experimental licenses, according to Rackley, it’s that it has given the FCC plenty of evidence to digest. Combined with the improved carrier frequency control and precision audio delay in modern transmitters, he sees little reason not to make the leap. “Stations can use it to add to their coverage areas and, when engineered to not impact other signals interference-wise, their service improvement will come with no downside for the AM band,” Rackley says. He predicts additional benefits may appear if as part of the evolution of the AM band fewer stations fill the dial. “It could be crucial for the survival of the AM broadcasting service into the future,” Rackley says.

Similar arguments have been presented to the FCC by engineering firms including Hatfield & Dawson and Sellmeyer Engineering, which points out boosters have been used over the years in markets including Houston; Miami-Ft. Lauderdale; Charlotte; Kansas City; Las Vegas; Albuquerque; and Santa Fe, NM.

Old Idea, New Tech

Brian Henry, a broadcast engineer since the 1970s and former owner of KLLK Willits, CA (1250) says when the FCC first considered allowing boosters, in 1987, the GPS-equipped oscillators needed to precisely adjust a transmitter’s frequency and phase were quite expensive. That’s no longer the case. “Therefore, nearly 30 years later, I feel that these sorts of technological advances make revisiting this matter to be appropriate and timely,” Henry tells the FCC. Henry thinks it’s possible that more sophisticated computer antenna modeling software could also allow for new, lower-profile antenna designs to be used in conjunction with boosters. “I feel that this represents an exciting opportunity for AM broadcast stations to improve service to the public with a technology that could actually ‘revitalize’ AM and possibly facilitate the long-term viability of the standard broadcast band for many years to come,” Henry says.

While most engineers expect the FCC to dictate how much a synchronous booster must overlap with an existing primary station’s 2 mV/m contours, there’s a general consensus that the FCC will allow AM owners to construct booster facilities using the existing allocation rules, including analysis of potential station-to-station interference. There’s less agreement however on whether a booster network should have an implication on an operator’s ownership limits in a market.

Lockwood suggests the FCC issue some best practice guidelines rather than writing too many specific regulations or cap the number of boosters one station can have. “Hamstringing these facilities with rules that may limit future innovations may be counterproductive,” he says.

The ultimate goal of the AM revitalization effort is to offer a lifeline to the struggling band. Kintronic’s Tom King believes boosters may help achieve that in a way FM translators cannot. “Unlike FM translators, such on-channel boosters would serve to increase the AM stations’ audiences while concurrently maintaining the future viability of the band,” he says. But King says time is of the essence. “The Commission must take several bold steps in the very near future to preserve AM radio for future generations of Americans.”