It took nearly a year, but the Federal Communications Commission is ready to get down to business on how best to speed up and clarify the path for resolving FM translator interference complaints.
At its May Open Meeting, the FCC will consider a Report and Order that would adopt streamlined rules relating to interference caused by FM translators and expedite the interference complaint resolution process.
Four years ago, when the commission first authorized AM stations to rebroadcast their signals over FM translators to as part of AM Revitalization efforts, the resultant growth (from about 1,850 translators in 1990 to about 8,048 in 2019) opened the lid on Pandora’s Box when it came to complaints. Soon after, the commission began hearing from a growing number of individuals who wanted a clearer and more streamlined process for dealing with interference issues.
Among the issues: some stations have raised interference claims against relatively distant translator stations with little evidence. (Under current FCC rules, a translator station may be forced to cease operations due to just one unresolved listener complaint.) In other cases, translator stations have responded to interference complaints by attacking the validity of the complaints themselves. In the ensuing battle, the process has inadvertently promoted what the FCC gently called “negative interactions” between translator operators and listener complainants.
The Report and Order that the commission will now consider is designed to address these issues by strengthening complaint requirements, reducing the role of listeners in the complaint resolution process, setting an outer signal strength limit on actionable complaints (while providing a waiver in some cases) and giving more flexibility to translator operators to change channels.
“Clarifying the process and balancing the interests of the various services involved is particularly critical given the present-day saturation of the FM spectrum in many markets,” the FCC said in its draft order. “Because of the maturity of the FM service, we must not only balance the needs of translator, low-power FM and full-service licensees, but also take into account concerns such as the overall noise floor and technical integrity of the FM band.”
The changes proposed in the order include:
- Establishing a minimum number of listener complaints, proportionate to the population the complaining station serves, that a station would need to submit with any claim of interference;
- Standardizing and codifying the required contents of each listener complaint;
- Establishing interference resolution procedures that reduce the involvement of complaining listeners with remediation efforts;
- Implementing an alternative process for demonstrating that interference has been resolved using technical methods mutually agreed upon by the complaining station and translator station;
- Establishing an outer 45 dBμ contour limit for the complaining station within which interference complaints will be considered actionable;
- Establishing a minimum number of additional listener complaints that must be included in any waiver seeking to establish a claim of interference outside the complaining station’s 45 dBμ contour.
That second-to-last item has been an important one for a number of broadcasters. The New Jersey Broadcasters Association expressed concerns about how the proposed rules could impact its stations. “We feel that any weakening of the protections that full-service licensees have and were originally granted would substantially create an impairment on the licenses and permits in derogation of the Communications Act,” said Paul S. Rotella, president and CEO of the NJBA.
The organization specifically called on the commission to reject an originally proposed outer contour limit of 54 dBμ.
The current draft order proposes to set the interference limit from an FM translator to 45 dBμ for full-power FM, LPFM, FM translator or FM booster stations. By setting this outer limit on translator interference complaints, the commission said it will give licensees clarity regarding their investments and will protect radio listeners from a loss of service.
The commission determined that setting a complaint limit at the 45 dBμ contour “best balances full-service, secondary service, and listener interests by providing a contour limit that encompasses the bulk of full-service core listenership while limiting complaints at the margins of listenable coverage,” the FCC said.
The commission also took steps to establish adjacent-channel protections.
“We believe that the measures adopted herein strike a balance between managing FM band spectrum, providing greater certainty for translator operators and preserving existing protections for full-service stations,” the FCC said.