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FCC Plans to Cap New NCE FM Applications

Filing window for reserved band stations will open in 2021

Radio Milwaukee
There are about 4,200 FM educational stations in the United States, including Radio Milwaukee. The number may be about to increase substantially.

The FCC is expecting a rush next year when it opens a window for applications for new FM stations on the lower end of the U.S. radio band. So it is planning to cap the number of applications per entity and is asking for comment.

The commission confirmed it will open a filing window for new FM reserved band applications in 2021. Dates will be announced later. The reserved band is 88.1 to 91.9 MHz. Individuals cannot apply for NCEs.

[Read RW’s story this week about this planned window, “NCE Filing Window Likely in Early 2021”]

In a 2007 window, the commission capped the number of NCE FM new station applications per entity at 10. That cap was prompted in part by the massive response to a 2003 FM translator window, in which the commission got approximately 13,000 applications, many from “speculative filers.” The commission ended up getting about 3,600 in the capped 2007 window. It said the cap allowed it “to expeditiously process and grant thousands of applications to a wide range of local and diverse applicants, therefore promoting the rapid expansion of new NCE FM service throughout the country.”

Even though almost half of those 3,600 were mutually exclusive with at least one other application, it said that the cap helped restrict the number of MX applications, including “daisy chains,” situations in which proposals contain service areas that don’t directly overlap but are linked into a chain by the overlapping proposals of others.

Daisy chains are where things get really messy. “Applications for full-service stations present a prospect of ‘daisy chains’ of conflicting applications due to the size of the proposed service areas and the interference protection provided to full-service stations,” the commission wrote. “A limit on applications will reduce the number and complexity of such situations.” It wants to avoid a large number of speculative filings and the potential for “extraordinary procedural delays.”

A window in 2010 didn’t involve a cap but that was for a limited number of vacant allotments on the non-reserved band that had been reserved for NCE FM use, and generated only about 300 applications.

[Read: FCC Nixes Call to Tweak NCE Licensing Rules]

The FCC said it is expecting a lot of interest in 2021 for several reasons: There’s no application filing fee; there are no ownership limits in the reserved band; there has not been a filing window for new NCE FM applications for over a decade; and the commission recently simplified and clarified the rules and procedures including how it treats competing applications.

It invited comment on this cap, and added that its goal is to “give interested parties the opportunity to apply for local and regional NCE FM outlets.” Read the details here.

The number of FM educational stations has almost doubled in two decades, from 2,140 in the year 2000 to just under 4,200 at the most recent count. But if there is a rush of applications, they probably will be focused on smaller markets. John Garziglia, communications law attorney for Womble Bond Dickinson, told RW recently that he expects most new full-service NCE licenses will be awarded outside major urban areas.