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Here’s the FCC Plan for FM6 Stations

Read details of the proposal to grandfather 14 “Franken FMs”

We now have the details of the plan that would grandfather in certain FM6 radio stations — those low-power digital TV stations that continue also to air analog radio-like services just below the official FM dial, where many radio receivers can hear them. The Federal Communications Commission will vote on that plan this month.

The FCC released the text of its draft report and order. As we reported earlier, the commission intends to resolve this longstanding issue at its July 20 meeting.

The draft has good news for 13 LPTV licensees that are on the air with FM6 STAs in nine states, plus one other licensee.

But it has bad news for other past FM6 operators or those that may have hoped to start one. It also has no joy for anyone who hoped that the commission might open unused Channel 6 spectrum to expand the FM band itself.

(Read the draft text.)

Grandfathered in

If approved, the draft will allow 14 “Franken FM” LPTV stations to operate as ancillary or supplementary services. But each will be required to transmit a dual digital TV and analog radio signal, to address concerns that such stations sometimes delivered minimal video service in the past.

“The record in this proceeding reflects widespread recognition of the long history of public interest benefits provided by existing FM6 LPTV stations’ FM6 operations,” it states.

“FM6 LPTV stations have maintained a close connection with the communities they serve through their FM6 programming. Listeners have tuned to existing FM6 LPTV stations for foreign language, religious and sports programming; programming intended to support historically underserved populations such as native Spanish speakers, immigrant populations; and programming designed for niche music audiences. In addition, existing FM6 LPTV stations provide emergency and public safety information that their listeners have come to rely upon in times of disasters.”

Radio broadcasters including National Public Radio and other noncommercial educational entities historically have opposed the idea, as did full-power television stations operating on Channel 6. But both NPR and the National Association of Broadcasters have since dropped their opposition to grandfathering the current stations.

The commission thinks there had been around 30 such stations at one time, but after the 2021 LPTV digital transition, newly digital LPTV stations that had been providing FM6 service were no longer able to reach their analog radio audience through their TV transmission.

Thirteen stations received special temporary authority to continue providing analog audio-only service to radio audiences. They are KBKF, San Jose, Calif., whose STA request appears to have set the precedent for this group; WMTO, Norfolk, Va.; KXDP, Denver, Colo.; WTBS, Atlanta, Ga.; WRME, Chicago, Ill.; KZNO, Big Bear Lake, Calif.; KEFM, Sacramento, Calif.; WEYS, Miami, Fla.; WDCN, Fairfax, Va.; KRPE, San Diego, Calif.; KGHD, Las Vegas, Nev.; WPGF, Memphis, Tenn.; and WNYZ, New York, N.Y. Most if not all of them operate on a commercial basis.

Those stations were required in their STAs to convert to ATSC 3.0 digital operations; provide at least one video stream on the ATSC 3.0 portion; limit FM6 operations to 87.75 MHz; operate on a non-interference basis; provide audio and video coverage to similar populations; and provide status reports about interference and population reach.

The goal was to allow the FCC to evaluate operations of stations using an FM transmitter and ATSC 3.0 transmitter at the same time and ensure that the stations did not prioritize FM operations over television operations, “which was an issue during analog operations.” The FCC said the reports have shown no incidents of interference with their own ATSC 3.0 operations or other licensees.

Now the draft order would grandfather those 13 stations in, codifying most of the requirements of their STAs. The commission believes that its rules will ensure that these stations “are first and foremost LPTV stations and that their video programming stream is prioritized over any audio stream,” rather than operating with minimal video services.

The stations will have to provide at least one stream of synchronized video and audio programming on the ATSC 3.0 portion of the spectrum at any time the station is operating. They also must be able to separately air EAS alerts on both their television and their FM6 operations. And although LPTV stations are not required to maintain an online public inspection file, they’ll have to keep one for their FM6.

The FCC text notes criticisms that some FM6 stations don’t provide local programming, “merely airing music programming,” but it said the commission does not make distinctions based on format.

It also noted that some people worry that FM6 stations will abandon current programming, but it isn’t convinced. “To the contrary, the record throughout this proceeding indicates that ‘FM6 LPTV stations are highly incentivized, economically and otherwise, to continue offering their niche and localized content catering to very specific underserved communities.’”

Among those who will be disappointed in the outcome are any legacy analog operators that ceased FM6 operations but may have intended to resume, including two stations that filed comments to the FCC: WJMF(LD), Jackson, Miss., and KBFW(LD), Arlington, Texas. The commission said their circumstances are different and that they wouldn’t be allowed.

But the commission will allow WVOA(LD) in Westvale, N.Y., which it said faced special circumstances beyond its control. WVOA will have to operate under an STA until the commission determines that interference won’t be an issue.

If the draft is adopted, the Media Bureau will set a deadline for the 14 FM6 stations to notify the commission whether they plan to continue operations.

Important details

The draft would allow these FM6 stations to be assigned or transferred and allow modifications to their technical facilities, so long as a station remains within its current protected contour or demonstrates that modifications are an engineering necessity, such as loss of a tower site.

It also clarifies that the 5 percent ancillary or supplementary fee required by FCC rules applies to an FM6 service as it would other ancillary or supplementary services offered by a TV station.

Critically, however, the commission will not allow an expansion of this type of service beyond the grandfathered 14.

It said it has seen no detailed interference studies that show that FM6 operations will not cause interference to host digital television operations or adjacent FM radio stations in all circumstances. So the draft says that allowing all Channel 6 LPTV stations to offer new FM6 services would not serve the public interest.

It rejected any notion that this decision to limit FM6 operations is “arbitrary and capricious.” It said the STA stations have actively taken steps to ensure continuity of service to their listeners, and that the decision is also based on concerns of potential interference. “The risk of upsetting the current, interference-free environment outweighs the benefit of permitting new FM6 LPTV stations and is contrary to the public interest rationale by which we have determined that continued operation of current analog FM6 operations following the stations’ digital television transition is justified.”

What the FCC did not do

The draft also would not adopt a proposal from NPR to repurpose the 82-88 MHz spectrum for FM services in locations where channels are not being used for TV programming. It said that plan is not feasible because of the possibility of interference; it’s not efficient because current receivers are not capable of picking up FM stations below 87.7 FM; and it’s not appropriate because TV6 spectrum is still needed for broadcast television use.

The draft also says no to requests to allow FM6 operations on 87.7 MHz (rather than 87.75) to improve analog reception. “This is a 50 kHz shift from what has been authorized under the current FM6 STAs and as such, we are reluctant to permit this change without a thorough technical examination of such a move.”

The draft declines to revise the TV6 interference rules, at least for now. The FCC had invited comment on whether to eliminate TV6 interference protections for NCE FM, low-power FM, Class D (10 watt) FMs and FM translators operating in the reserved band, or alternatively to revise and update the interference protections for the post-digital transition world. But it says it will take that up later.

And the draft order does not act on an NPR proposal to allow existing NCE FM stations to relocate to 87.9 MHz. “As this change could impact our revisions to the TV6 interference rules, we find that it would be more appropriate to consider NPR’s proposal in conjunction with a future TV6 interference proceeding.”

[Related: “The Tech Behind Franken FMs 2.0”]