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Translator Rules Revisited

Translator Rules Revisited

Mar 1, 2012 2:30 AM, by Jeremy Ruck, PE

A little over a year ago, we looked at some the history behind FM translators and gazed into a cloudy crystal ball. Fast forward to now. While the crystal ball is still a little cloudy, a couple of important events have happened in the life of translators that warrant some discussion.

Photo by Doc Searls. Used under a Creative Commons license.

It is an undeniable fact that the change in the permissible service rules of FM translators to allow fill-in service has been a boon to AM licenses. The demand for translators by AM stations has also generated substantial new interest in these secondary facilities. The effect a fill-in translator can have on the value of an AM station, especially a Class-D facility, is huge.

Because there is no free lunch, we, as expected, are seeing more cases where the interests of fill-in translator operators are pitted against their colleagues or competitors in the same or adjacent markets. Despite the obvious benefits these translators provide to their communities, they still retain their secondary status, which means they cannot cause actual interference to the regularly used signals of full-power FM facilities. Thus, a 3kW class A that is under height and 50 miles from the location of your translator, can complain about your interference, while it would have no leg to stand on should a similar level of interference come from an authorized full power station operating according to the terms of its license.

That being said, many licensees have been able to construct fill-in translators that will likely enjoy long-term survivability. In some cases, the end state of the translator was finally reached after several hops or relocations. In others, the moves are still ongoing with the end result yet to be realized. While large changes in the location of a translator are not strictly prohibited by the Commission’s rules through hopping, this practice has been abused by a number of entities over the past several years.

A minor change

Under the current rules, a minor change involves a change in frequency of plus or minus three channels, plus or minus 53 or 54 channels, or a change in location where there is common overlap of the 1.0mV/m service contours. It should be noted that any change in frequency for an un-built translator that moves the facility from the reserved to unreserved portion of the band, or vice-versa, is considered major regardless of how small the change in frequency is.

Hopping occurs when the translator is moved to a new location through successive minor changes to avoid a making a single major change. The Commission is not fond of this practice, and has alluded to the imposition of restrictions on such activity in the future. This can be problematic since on the one hand the use of translators to fill-in AM facilities is promoted. On the other, however, the relatively small footprint of a translator coupled with the coverage overlap requirement has hampered some relocation efforts to fill-in AM facilities.

One solution to this dilemma has been for the Commission to waive, in certain instances, provisions of section 74.1233 of the Rules. This is the section that describes major and minor changes to translators. The first of these narrowly defined waivers was granted to a translator in Central Illinois that sought to relocate to a site that would not have met the 1.0mV/m contour overlap requirement between the proposed and licensed facilities. The Commission agreed with the contention of the applicant that this move was nevertheless in the public interest because of four specific conditions.

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Translator Rules Revisited

Mar 1, 2012 2:30 AM, by Jeremy Ruck, PE

First, the applicant did not have a history of submitting serial minor change applications that resulted in the previously mentioned facility hopping. As the Commission noted in the grant of the waiver, some licensees had been hopping translators 100 miles or more in distance. Not only does the long term hopping of a translator accomplish what is technically prohibited under the Commission’s Rules, it also implicitly creates problems with the 1945 Ashbacker case. That case essentially requires competing applicants in the same situation to be given the same chance when applying for the same license. Because a major change application would have to be filed under a window, which is in essence a freeze, other applicants could reasonably argue their Ashbacker rights have been frustrated.

Next, the Commission noted that the proposed facility was mutually exclusive with the licensed facility. This condition is one that can be applied to changes in full power station allotments. If a proposed allocation is mutually exclusive with a currently authorized one, then a competing applicant is not denied any opportunities since they would ne be available in the first place due to the licensed allocation.

Translators and LPFM

Under the Third Further Notice for the LPFM service, the Commission noted that many of the pending translator applications by virtue of their existence preclude LPFM opportunities in many locations. To prevent further erosion of LPFM opportunities, a threshold floor for LPFM service based on market size was created. The Commission noted in this instance that the relocation of the translator did not cause issues with this concept.

Finally, the proposed facility would be utilized as an AM fill-in translator, the single application would conserve Commission resources, and the applicant could avoid substantial delay and expense in providing this valuable service to the residents of its community. These factors, in addition to the previous three, were deemed sufficient to meet the public interest threshold, and the requested waiver was granted. Since that original waiver grant, numerous similar requests have been met with favorable treatment by the Commission.

The ire of the Commission toward multiple licensees seems to have been raised over additional flagrant violations by those licensees. First, it was well known that many facilities for which license applications had been filed were never in fact constructed. It is important to remember that the Commission has the assumption that all information submitted to it is factual, thus issues with candor really cause them to get unglued for obvious reasons.

Secondly, many proposed facilities did not meet any sense of site assurance or availability. Initially after the ending of most site location map requirements, an applicant could probably skate through an unregistered tower easily, since the Staff was not likely to dig out the USGS topographic map and verify your location. Now that multiple satellite imagery websites are available, it is quite simple for the Staff to check on your proposed location. Logic would dictate that no site assurance was granted for the shoulder of a highway or an Interstate rest area.

Although the translator rules have not changed in essence over the past year, some key policy changes have. The discussed waiver makes it easier for translators to be used for AM facilities, but the Third Noticemakes it more difficult in certain cases to move a translator into urban markets. Because the wheels tend to grind slowly in Washington, the six-month processing freeze imposed in 2005 is still in effect. The signals coming out of the Commission, however, seem to indicate that we should see some movement in this arena in the near future. This future could possibly even be reached this spring.

Ruck is a senior engineer with D.L. Markley and Associates, Peoria, IL.

March 2012

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