FCC Tackles Contested LPFMs

Agency Encourages Applicants to Reach Voluntary Settlements
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Interference Study Due SoonCould more LPFM stations be allowed?

As the FCC's Audio Division continues to weed through LPFM applications, staffers await word on whether interference protection rules mandated by Congress are necessary.

The commission is expected to receive a long-awaited report from Mitre Corp., a nonprofit group specializing in government contracts, at the end of May. In 2001, Congress required the FCC to retain a third party to conduct a study on the third-adjacent channel protections. These are the minimum distance separations between LPFMs and full-power FMs and between LPFMs and translators operating on third-adjacent channels.

Last August, Mitre selected a subcontractor, Comsearch, to conduct the testing and analysis at experimental stations. Comsearch measured interference from LPFM stations to existing FM stations in six locations.

The report is expected to contain an analysis of the test data and recommendations for any service rules that could be implemented to relieve interference, if there is any. As specified by Congress, Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle said, the commission would solicit public comments on the report and send the feedback to Capitol Hill. Whether the FCC ultimately will change the rule is up to legislators.

"The statute basically says that we have to come back to them if we want to change the LPFM interference standards," he said.

So far, neither the FCC nor the NAB has received complaints from full-power outlets about interference from LPFM stations. According to NAB, "only time will tell."

"As more stations come on, we'll see if there's more interference, but we're not anticipating it," said NAB spokesman Jeffrey Yorke. "The story would be completely different if Congress hadn't put up the third-adjacent channel protections."

Unknown is how many more LPFMs could be licensed if Mitre finds little or no interference. The FCC would need to study this after receiving approval from Congress.

In February, the Audio Division asked WFBP(LP) in Taylors, S.C., to go off the air because a full-power station in the same community applied to the agency to make a change that involved an overlap of contours, not due to an interference complaint. The station complied willingly, Doyle said, adding that the LPFM submitted a proposal to move to another channel in order to avoid the overlap.

According to the rules, LPFM stations are protected by holes caused by interference in a full-power station's 60 dBu contour but not in the 70 dBu contour, which is the premium contour for full-power stations. Doyle said LPFM stations have a small buffer zone when full-power stations seek a change. The division is expected to rule on the issue in the coming months.

- by Naina Narayana ChernoffWASHINGTON An effort to clear out a backlog of several hundred LPFM applications is underway at the FCC.

While LPFM supporters and applicants have expressed frustration over the slow pace of approving applications, the commission has been working to conclude its decisions on outstanding non-contested applications and to begin tackling conflicting applications, which involve requests for frequencies that do not meet the spacing requirements of federal rules. These applications are mutually exclusive, or "MX" - both cannot be granted if interference is to be avoided.

The FCC planned to issue a public notice in late spring to inform applicants of their MX status and give them a deadline for working out arrangements to share air time, according to Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle. In those situations, he believes applicants should find ways to share LPFM licenses.

Among more than 3,000 organizations that applied for frequencies in 2000-02, an estimated 140 licensed LPFM stations are on the air and about 650 applicants hold construction permits. Those groups are in various stages of the process, from building out to having a station on air and waiting to receive word from the FCC on their formal license application.

In March, the commission dismissed 481 applications for not meeting the FCC's LPFM third-adjacent-channel distance separation requirements. These are required for LPFM frequencies next to protected FMs.

For the rest of the year, Doyle expects the division to work on the MX applications, starting with the public notice, which he hopes will launch a period of universal settlements.

"The rules are set up to encourage settlement agreements between competing applicants." For many groups, he said, a couple of hours of airtime may be sufficient.

In cases where competing applications cannot agree, Doyle said, the applications will be resolved through a point system. Points will be awarded based on a group's presence in the community for at least two years, a commitment to broadcast at least 12 hours per day, and a commitment to provide at least eight hours of locally originated programming each day.

The applicant with the most points will be awarded a construction permit. In the case of a tie, the FCC would encourage competing applicants to share a license.

Commission rules allow all radio stations to share time with other stations. The FCC can specify the division of time in the stations' licenses, or the owners may reach a private agreement, which is then filed with the FCC and considered part of their licenses.

For Pete Tridish, a staffer at Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit organization that guides LPFM broadcasters through the launch process, the shared-time arrangement could mean trouble.

"It will be very difficult for some of these groups to work out deals," he said. "We are encouraging everyone to go into this in as fair-minded a manner as possible, but you know that there will be trouble sometimes when total strangers have to cooperate in everyone's best interests."

The process of deciding the fate of the stations will not be quick, Doyle said. "Since we're dealing with hundreds of groups, it will take some time," he said. "It's a question of resources."

Some are discouraged

A lack of resources at the FCC devoted to launching LPFM has frustrated many applicants, Tridish said. But, he said, the FCC seems to be moving as fast as possible. "To be fair, they often do things they say they're going to do within months."

Some applicants with an MX status who have been waiting on word from the commission for two years have become discouraged, said Kai Aiyetoro, director of low-power FM for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

"Many applicants I've contacted were ready to give up," she said. "I've had to convince many of them that they have a valuable commodity." In communities where the station would serve an ethnic community, Aiyetoro said a low-power station can fulfill an important need of informing and educating listeners.

Doyle appreciates the frustration of the MX applicants but says that the situation is solvable by reaching settlements. "Getting on air is in their control," he said.

Old applications

Aiyetoro believes the FCC's work will be made more difficult because circumstances with many MX applicants may have changed and the groups may not have supplied the FCC with new contact information.

"You don't know what's happened to people in the last two years," Aiyetoro said. For example, she said, the point person for one particular group has passed away.

Uncertainty involved in applying is among the factors blamed for the slow buildout for some stations. Applicants understandably are reluctant to raise funds for a station until they have a construction permit in hand; but the unpredictability of the timing of CPs forces groups to scramble to get stations on air within the 18 months allotted by the rules, said Tridish. He believes the commission should grant those groups a one-year extension, something currently prohibited.

Both Aiyetoro and Tridish believe the FCC efforts to resolve the applications quickly will also be hampered by several illegitimate applications.

Tridish said as many as 45 of the 151 applications filed by Calvary Chapel churches used templates in their applications describing their statements of purpose. His group, along with the National Lawyers Guild and the Microradio Implementation Project, submitted several objections to the FCC about Calvary Chapel's applications for LPFM frequencies in several states, alleging that the church group, which is licensed for more than 300 satellite-fed translators, used nearly identical declarations of their local mission even when located in different cities in attempt to build local chapters of a national organization.

"It's a massive effort to game the rules and get more outlets," he said.

In responses to the informal objections, Calvary Chapel church groups said the allegations were unsubstantiated and pledged that the churches would provide local service.

So far, the FCC has granted 29 applications and dismissed 34 applications filed by Calvary Chapel church groups and are working through the remaining 88 applications.

Despite some problems, a broadcast source who wished to remain anonymous said the pace at which the FCC is approving LPFM applications has been steady compared to that of other services. In contrast to commercial FM stations, whose owners have been waiting for the FCC to hold an auction for new FM frequencies, the FCC has been wading through LPFM applications with careful oversight, according to this source.

Meanwhile, some LPFM applicants are dropping out. According to the NFCB, an estimated 19 LPFM construction-permit holders lost their frequencies because they didn't complete the 18-month buildout process due to finances. Tridish estimates that a typical station needs $5,000 to $10,000 to launch successfully as well as some professional help in setting up equipment.

Some engineering consultants have found the LPFM business to be not profitable. Though applicants have displayed a range of abilities, a majority needed schooling in radio regulation as well as help in choosing a site, selecting a frequency and filling out applications The process of getting an LPFM on the air has been an eye-opener for many applicants, who are unaware of the responsibilities of running a radio station, these consulting engineers said.

In addition, some engineers have been challenged by the tight deadlines for LPFM clients during FCC application windows. "Everything is last-minute, which can be burdensome for a consulting firm that needs to have time to check data, verify it and time to check options," one engineer said.

Powers that be

Tridish believes a big hindrance in getting LPFM fully off the ground is the FCC's lack of prioritization.

"The staff is doing the best job it can, but there's a lack of support and resources from the higher-ups," Tridish said.

While it's been three years since the FCC created the service, only a small number of stations have been licensed compared to the 1,000-plus stations originally hoped for by the commission. Then-Chairman William Kennard, a Democrat, pushed the idea of low-power community radio stations as a way to achieve more diversity of programming in light of consolidation. Some low-power radio supporters fear that the current Republican majority at the FCC has a wavering commitment to LPFM. The FCC has denied any change in schedule or resources put toward low-power.

Tridish said the LPFM community would like current Chairman Michael Powell to increase the staff working on the issue.

"Many applicants have gone for years now without any sort of communications from the FCC. I don't think this would have happened under Kennard's watch," he said.

"The FCC staff is right not to post a timetable that they can not guarantee that they can keep to. But they should not be in that position. They should be able to plan their work and tell the public their timetable and know that they have the people to accomplish what they set out to."

Staffers at the commission, especially those within the media bureau, have been handling a host of high-profile issues including the biennial media ownership review. The FCC's Doyle concurs that this is a matter of prioritization but contends that the division has set an ambitious goal to reach initial decision on MX applications filed during the first LPFM filing window. "I expect to be fully engaged in this process during this calendar year."

The FCC also is getting closer to answering the question of whether future LPFM frequencies will be available if the third-adjacent channel protections are determined to be unnecessary. Doyle said the commission is expected to receive its report from Mitre Corp., a nonprofit group specializing in government contracts, at the end of May.

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