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FCC’s Doyle Warns Waiver Standards for Pending FM Translators Are High

A lot has to happen before a new LPFM window opens

A lot of things need to happen before the FCC can sort out processing thousands of pending FM translator applications before turning its attention to opening an application window for new low-power FMs.

That became apparent early on in a public meeting yesterday at the FCC’s headquarters here in Washington.

The commission has received several comments from broadcasters, asking why most of the pending translator applications from 2003 would need to be dismissed when it’s not clear if that would make room for new LPFMs in the top 150 markets. In explaining the agency’s recent processing decisions regarding FM translators and LPFMs, FCC Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle said, “We’ve tried to respond to the criticisms. We’re confident we can carry this out but I am concerned about the complexity.”

The goal, he said, is to preserve remaining allocation availabilities for both FM translators and LPFMs.

The point of the meeting was to give guidance to FCC consulting engineers and communications attorneys to help their clients decide which of their pending FM translators to pursue for processing. The commission has adopted a national cap of 50 applications per entity and a market-based cap of one application per entity in the most “spectrum-limited markets.”

Doyle warned attendees not to expect exceptions to the weeding out process, noting that the “standards for waivers are extremely high. We need to keep this process moving forward.”

The Audio Division is working on a Federal Register notice about the caps. Once that’s complete, staffers will put together a notice for oppositions and reply comments, according to division staff.

A core group of communications attorneys and consulting engineers attended the briefing by the Audio Division. The Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers and Federal Communications Bar Association had pressed for the meeting.

Much of the discussion centered on how to use the commission’s radio market “grid tool” which attorneys or engineers would use to gain allocation information for their clients’ FM translator allocation applications. The agency has a tentative timeline mapped out for processing those applications, divided by whether a translator choice is in a spectrum-limited or not in a spectrum-limited market as well as other criteria, culminating with an LPFM application window in the spring or, more likely, summer of 2013.

However that’s a real guesstimate at this point, since the commission needs to adopt final technical stations for LPFM first. “Until we have those we can’t talk about a window,” said Jim Bradshaw, deputy chief of engineering for the Audio Division Deputy.

Charles Cooper of duTreil, Lundin & Rackley was one attendee who had sought the meeting. Both he and Clear Channel’s Troy Langham said it was helpful and will lead to more questions as they begin to sort through the tough decisions about which of the pending FM translator applications to pursue.

The commission’s anti-collusion rule — an auction-related rule that in this case would basically keep applicants in the same market from talking to each other and making deals on cap dismissals that not all applicants in that market would be a party to — will be in affect when the broadcasters make their initial decisions about which applications to pursue in order to comply with the caps. Broadcasters were hoping that restriction would be waived.

Under its tentative timeline, the commission would be looking to begin the cap compliance/dismissal process this summer. The cap decision itself is under question as several petitions for reconsideration have been filed, which could delay the application processing.

The advice from Audio Division staffers to broadcasters is that when a window does open up, be ready to file on the first day. That application window would be for broadcasters to indicate the FM translator applications they want to keep and the ones they will drop to comply with the caps.

Bradshaw said the commission’s servers have been improved since 2003 when the system was overwhelmed by thousands of filings. “If there is some kind of issue, if a problem prevents [you] from filing, we can extend the window,” he said, meaning in a worst-case scenario.

And what of those who lose out in this go-round? They can reapply for an FM translator in the next window, which would be after the LPFM window, according to FCC staff. That was a hard pill to swallow for broadcasters that have been waiting since 2003, several participants in the room told me.