New technical rules are now in place for the nation’s low-power FM service.
On April 23 the Federal Communications Commission issued a Report and Order revising and clarifying technical rules for LPFM stations, though not all of the proposals proffered in the previous Notice of Proposed Rulemaking made it into the final order.
The commission adopted four main proposals, including expanding the permissible use of directional antennas; permitting waivers of protections of television Channel 6 by a specific group of reserved channel stations; expanding the definition of minor change applications for LPFM stations; and allowing LPFM stations to own boosters. According to the commission, these changes are designed to give low-power FM stations the means of improving their service as well as offering greater flexibility and removing some regulatory burdens.
The use of directional antennas is notable. When the commission created the LPFM service in 2000, it opted to allow only omnidirectional antennas because it wanted to implement service quickly and sought to establish simplified application preparation and processing.
The revised rule allows LPFM stations to apply to use directional antennas to comply with treaty obligations to Canada and Mexico without the need to submit a proof-of-performance document. The revised rule also permits LPFMs to apply to use directional antennas to protect other broadcast stations from interference; in this case, though, an LPFM station has to submit a proof of performance.
LPFM proponents expressed support for directionals because they would provide more flexibility for stations looking to relocate and operate near international borders. Several groups representing full-power broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters, the New Jersey Broadcasters Association and others, opposed the idea, questioning why LPFMs would need directional antennas to reach more listeners given the highly localized purpose of the LPFM service.
But the commission said it found “no compelling reason to continue restricting the use of directional antennas in the LPFM service to TIS [travelers information service] stations and second adjacent waivers.” The commission said that it expects LPFM applicants will use the option primarily in border regions and similar circumstances where the benefits justify the additional expense.
In a statement about the issue, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he was sympathetic to commenters who expressed concern regarding the potential deployment of more directional antennas by LPFM stations. “[I] have to trust that proofs of performance will provide adequate insurance against misuse,” he said. “Further, I understand that these antennas are expected to be used primarily in locations near our country’s international borders, but this is an important issue that I intend to watch closely as these rules are implemented.”
The commission also moved to redefine the types of LPFM facility changes that qualify as “minor.” The goal here is to provide additional flexibility for LPFM stations to relocate their facilities. Based on the fact that LPFMs typically have 60 dBu service contours with a radius of slightly more than 5.6 kilometers/3.5 miles, and that the contours of two such facilities can be expected to overlap at double that distance at 11.2 kilometers/7 miles, the FCC voted to allow LPFM site changes up to 11.2 kilometers (or to any greater distance that would result in overlapping 60 dBu service contours between the existing and relocated facilities).
The new rules also allow for a LPFM licensee to own and operate FM booster stations. The NPRM tentatively concluded that FM boosters should be available on a nonwaiver basis to any LPFM station that might be able to operate a booster without causing interference to itself. Accordingly, the commission proposed to amend its rules to incorporate guidelines for potential LPFM use of an FM booster in lieu of use of an FM translator. Under the original proposal, such booster stations could receive the signal of the commonly-owned LPFM station by any means authorized in the FCC rulebook.
One area in which the commission elected not to make a change involved eliminating the rules requiring radio stations operating in the FM reserved band to protect TV6. The NPRM proposed to eliminate TV6 distance separation rules for LPFM, NCE, Class D and FM translator stations operating on reserved band FM Channels 201–220 stations after completion of the LPTV digital transition. In a separate finding after release of the NPRM, the Media Bureau asked for comment on the continued use of TV6 for analog audio services. Because that proceeding could have implications to TV6 protection requirements, the commission decided to defer further action on this issue.
The current proceedings sprang from a petition for rulemaking by REC Networks in 2018 that aimed to address various issues that preclude more successful deployment of LPFM stations, especially in suburban and core urban areas. At the time, REC Networks noted two main causes in particular: what it called “unnecessary overprotection” of other broadcast facilities by LPFM stations; and disparity in the relationship between LPFM stations and FM translators, which REC noted should be defined as equal in status.
The resulting Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposed to modernize technical aspects of the commission’s rules governing LPFM radio stations, sought comments on proposals to improve LPFM reception, and requested comments on increasing flexibility in siting of LPFM stations while maintaining interference protection to other radio stations.