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Community Broadcaster: New C4 Class Mustn’t Block LPFM

Could possible FCC proposal do more harm than good?

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly

At the recent Broadband and Social Justice Summit, Federal Communication Commission Chair Ajit Pai outlined plans to allow power increases for Class A radio stations. His remarks (text in full), offered at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council’s annual event, could be seen as part of larger diversity efforts by the FCC under Pai.

Class A FM increases, AM revitalization and other endeavors have offered lots of James Harden-style flash for Pai’s ambitious agenda. The latest moves, however, must not steal the momentum behind low-power FM.

What exactly is this new class of radio? Technical specification junkies may recall that FM radio is, in the end, a game of meters and watts. Currently, Class A stations operate on the FM band with a ceiling of six kilowatts of effective radiated power and are limited to 100 meters in antenna height. Also at that antenna height limit are Class C3 FM stations, which are allowed up to 25 kilowatts of effective radiated power. The proposed Class C4 would have the same antenna limit, but permit FM stations to go up to 12 kilowatts.

Head swimming yet? The long story short is the new category, called Class C4, presents an opportunity for Class A FM stations to jump up to double their current power. This increase would expand a station’s signal. For stations in urban areas, their ability to be heard would grow.

Pai’s vision for Class C4 is not new. Since 2014, the commission has been exploring the new category. However, the plans have yet to be fully realized. Spacing requirements and other regulations still need to be worked out. Owners of translators have been among the most vocal about such concerns. In addition, the Class C4 discussion of a few years ago hinted at protection of stations that have not maximized their signals to upgrade.

The FCC under Pres. Trump has made the Class C4 expansion a component in its larger equity effort. Speaking at the MMTC gathering, Pai contended past commissions failed to live up to diversity promises, and he was seeking to do more. Like that Harden stutter step, where this goes will depend on negotiations and public interest.

While the impact of a Class C4 addition is yet to be realized, the FCC must take seriously and act accordingly to protect the growing low-power FM space that is reenergizing so much of radio today.

What is the threat to LPFM? Increasing the power of Class C4 FM stations may further clog the airwaves, and interfere with low-power FM signals. And, as more of the band disappears, the ability of low-power stations to move decreases. Already, LPFM is considered secondary, or, put simply, not as high a priority as it should be when larger stations encroach. Chair Pai and those commissioners committed to diversity as they are must take a closer look at the voices LPFM brings to communities. It is important for noncommercial educational broadcasting that the FCC acts to ensure LPFM stations are protected and given the attention they deserve.

Faith-based and community LPFM has been the subject of much interest. The New York Times is among many to remark on the contributions to civic life that LPFM makes in cities and towns across the United States. Stations like KHBG(LP), Radio Bilingue’s low-power powerhouses and others are serving the needs of communities of color. These organizations have credibility in their regions and can fit into a wider strategy for diversity.

The Class C4 change further muddies the waters on any extension of LPFM’s reach in the near future as well. In some circles, there is even hope LPFM can get an increased ceiling of 250 watts. That’s a suggestion the National Association of Broadcasters has indicated it will fight (pdf), but such growth would be almost impossible if even more of the FM band becomes unavailable.

Many stakeholders have welcomed reforms the FCC has made. Class C4, if rushed through, is certain to see loud opposition. Groups like Free Press and Prometheus Radio Project are among those to challenge rapid deregulation by the FCC. (Full disclosure: I’m among those signatories on Free Press’ filings against the Sinclair-Tribune merger.) In this instance, racing into deregulation without hearing the concerns of LPFM stations would be unwise. Creating Class C4 without a thorough examination of impact would be unfair to an important segment of radio.