The good news: New funds are available to FM stations that are disrupted by the incentive auction. The flip side: Any reimbursements will only come after payouts to full-power stations are made.
That is the consensus of a newly minted Report and Order — unanimously supported at the March 15 Federal Communications Commission Open Meeting — that concludes that full-power FM stations, low-power FM stations, and FM translators that were licensed and transmitting on April 13, 2017, are eligible for reimbursement if their facilities have been affected by a repacked television station. LPTV and translator stations are also eligible to be reimbursed for expenses.
This means an FM station can be reimbursed up to 100% for costs it incurs to permanently relocate, temporarily or permanently modify their facilities, or for those who purchase or modify auxiliary facilities to provide service during work on a repacked television station’s facilities incurred as a result of the incentive auction.
In a move that was a point of contention for some broadcasters, the commission stuck to its stance that it will prioritize payment to full-power entities over payments to any newly eligible entities.
That was a concern for public broadcaster National Public Radio, who expressed dissatisfaction with the way that the FCC planned to prioritizing payment of FY 2019 funds to full-power and Class A TV stations and MVPDs over payments to FM stations. Congress has appropriated a total of $1 billion for reimbursements; in addition to the $600 million available from FY 2018, the 2018 Reimbursement Expansion Act (REA) allocated an additional $400 million from FY 2019.
“A better approach would be for the commission to prioritize payment of FY 2019 funds to primary full-power TV and FM stations over payments to secondary services, like LPTV and TV translator stations,” wrote NPR attorney Adam Shoemaker in a comment filing. “Alternatively, the commission should wait for more information about costs incurred by eligible entities before making prioritization decisions for FY 2019 funds.”
The Report and Order adopts a mechanism for reimbursing newly eligible entities that is similar is scope to the one for reimbursing full-power stations, Class A stations and MVPDs. New measures are also in place for guarding against waste and abuse in the relocation fund.
When it comes to LPTV and TV translator stations, the rules specified are slightly different. They are eligible for reimbursement if (1) they filed an application during the commission’s Special Displacement Window and obtained a construction permit, and (2) were licensed and transmitting for at least nine of the 12 months prior to April 13, 2017, as required by the REA.
The National Association of Broadcasters did not mention the prioritizing of payments in its official statement but did say it appreciates efforts of the FCC staff to implement rules to protect viewers and listeners during the repack, said NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton.
“Under a tight timeline, the staff worked incredibly hard to reach a balanced outcome that is as fair as possible given the challenges presented by the repack,” Wharton said, alluding to the fact that Congress had given the commission until March 23 to finalize the process.
“We are committed to working with the commission to ensure that tens of millions of viewers and listeners do not lose radio and TV service as the repack continues,” Wharton said.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the move makes good on a commitment to hold certain parties harmless — those that had been previously overlooked — throughout the repack process.
He admitted that “more data may be needed” before making final determinations on the adequacy of the funding levels, but was “hopeful” that funding will remain for LPTV/translator and FM stations.
“In particular, I want to ensure that FM radio stations are compensated for legitimate costs in the repack process,” he said.
Comments on the official Report and Order (known in halls of the FCC as the lengthily named “LPTV, TV Translator and FM Broadcast Station Reimbursement; Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions”) can be accessed using Media Bureau Docket Number 18-214.