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“Franken FMs” Get Longer Lives

FCC cancels their 2015 digital transition date; dual operation under review

So-called “Franken FMs” are getting a bit of a reprieve.

Readers may recall broadcaster questions to their attorneys over the years about whether radio should press the commission for a definite end date for Channel 6 low-power television stations acting as a radio service on 87.7 and 87.9 MHz usually ended with the fact that the LPTVs and TV translators would have to make the digital transition by Sept. 1, 2015.

Now, that date has been thrown out. The FCC has suspended expiration dates and construction deadlines for outstanding unexpired CPs for LPTVs and TV translators as the commission weighs issues to their digital transition in the wake of the TV spectrum auction and eventual channel repack. As part of a third Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the agency is reviewing whether to permit digital LPTV stations to operate analog FM radio-type services on an ancillary or supplementary basis.

Analog LPTV stations operating as radio stations were thought to have a limited shelf life because of the 2015 sunset. Radio operators had hoped the FCC would move quicker than that, citing interference concerns, especially to authorized stations at the low end of the dial.

LP operators say they’re operating within the law, while radio says they’re violating the intent of the law, if not technically breaking the rules that state LPTV operators need to program visually as well. Many of these aural stations air a static TV test pattern to satisfy that requirement. 

LPTV stations have proposed engineering solutions to continue to operate their “analog FM radio-type services on an ancillary or supplemental basis” after their digital conversion according to the agency in its NPRM. For example, Venture Technologies has sought to use a “hybrid” transmission method that would allow the company to continue to operate both after it goes digital.

The commission is asking for comment on how a digital LPTV station could operate an analog transmitter without interfering or degrading its co-channel digital operation as well as avoid interference to primary licensees, including FM noncommercial stations. “If we permit such operations, should we prohibit any overlap between the 100 dBu interfering contour of the Channel 6 LPTV station and the 60 dBu protected contour of the NCE FM station?” asks the FCC.

The agency also asks whether such LPTVs should be subject to Part 73 rules applicable to FM radio stations and need to maintain main studios and public inspection files, for example.

Full-power TV stations stopped analog broadcasts in 2009. Approximately 56% of LPTV, 80% of TV translator stations and 58% of Class A television stations have completed their conversion to digital. Comment dates have not yet been set for MB Docket No. 03-185.