The FCC has suggested that this spring we might see the first-ever “window” to file for new FM licenses in the non-commercial educational band.
It has been about nine years since the commission enacted a freeze on filings for new stations in the NCE band, which occupies the reserved spectrum from 88 to 92 MHz.
Held by colleges, high schools, public radio affiliates, churches and other non-profit groups, educational band licenses are allocated according to contour separations. This method of allotment, enhanced by directional arrays and low-minimum power requirements, has allowed a relatively small piece of spectrum to be packed with a large number of stations. Many serve tiny communities, as small as a college campus. On the other hand, the recent growth of public radio as a news source has made the noncommercial band well known to a mass market of listeners.
After a long freeze there exists great pent-up demand. The NCE band is under intense pressure from potential non-profit licensees.
The system of filing windows is new for the FM band. Such a window was created for translators a couple of years ago with disturbing results. More than 10,000 applications were filed in the translator window, many of which were defective in some way or conflicted with one another. It turned out that a few organizations with the ambition to create a national translator network had filed for thousands of translators in every open space they could find. This was not the intended outcome and does not seem to further local radio service.
Worse is the perception that many applications were filed by parties hoping simply to sell a translator to the highest bidder after award of the CP. The FCC ended up freezing many thousands of open applications, the disposition of which has still not been completed.
Now that we are on the verge of another window, we wonder if the FCC learned from the mistakes made on the translator filing window.
While the window filing system seems to put applicants on an equal footing to start, it has an unfortunate side effect: a tendency to force everyone interested to file for as many possible locations as possible. Existing licensees looking to protect the edges of their service contours will file preemptively in every direction that might allow an outside entity to start up a new source of interference. Aspiring broadcasters with no guarantee of a particular frequency or location will file possibly dozens of applications in order to improve their odds of finding one that does not conflict with another application. And there is still the unfulfilled desire to create national noncommercial networks, ensuring extensive filing on behalf of these parties.
The result could be another free-for-all.
We encourage the FCC to consider methods to discourage preemptive and speculative filing. One possible method would be the imposition of a minimal filing fee, affordable for stations looking to put in just a few applications but as a disincentive to massive, scattershot filings. An outright cap on the number of filings allowed by a single organization is another method that would work to limit applications.
The noncommercial educational band is a valuable resource, an incubator to new broadcasters and a radio service that provides an alternative to the types of programming provided by commercial broadcasters. Stations in the noncom band often are intensely local and deserving of protection from well-funded national groups. The FCC should consider how to launch much-needed expansion in the band without bringing it into chaos. Given the outcome of the translator window it would make sense to err on the side of caution.