The FM spectrum wars seem to be heating up.
Three organizations that support low-power FM stations in the United States have filed objections to 998 applications by full-power stations that want to extend coverage via FM translators.
Representatives from the Center for International Media Action, Common Frequency and the Prometheus Radio Project believe the FCC has had its eye off the ball since 2014 as it has handled translator applications.
This is the latest development in a years-long tug of war over U.S. FM spectrum management that often finds LPFM advocates and translator licensees pitted against one another a situation and that has gotten worse first as the LPFM service expanded and then as FCC policies encouraged further proliferation of FM translators for full-power stations including AMs.
The groups argue that after the Local Community Radio Act expanding the LPFM service was signed into law in 2011, Congress ordered the FCC to ensure that urban areas had opportunities for LPFM and translator applications and that the two types of radio facility be treated equally.
While the FCC previously had carefully modified translator processing procedures so that applicants could show that they were honoring the LCRA, argued Paul Bame of the Prometheus Radio Project in a letter on its website, “since 2014, something switched and they have allowed a giant spectrum grab by repeaters without regard to future LPFM opportunities.
“The congressional mandate is still in force, but seems to have been forgotten by the FCC,” he wrote.
According to the three groups, the FCC is supposed to serve as a referee between the interests of stations that wanted to extend their coverage with "repeaters" and new LPFMs looking to get a start in broadcasting.
“And from 2011 to 2013, they got it right,” the groups wrote. “Unfortunately, the referee has stepped off of the field, and incumbent owners are grabbing up everything they can, hoping no one will remember Congress’ mandate.”
They assert that the LCRA had determined that translator and LPFM services “remain equal in status” and “secondary to existing and modified full-service FM stations,” and thus, the groups argued, the FCC cannot enforce rules that give one service preference in relation to signal engineering.
Said Todd Urick with Common Frequency: “The rule of law still applies, and the FCC is bound by the orders that Congress gave it. Our objection to these 998 applications is a reminder that there was no sunset on compliance with this law in 2014 — it is still on the books and must be obeyed.”
Specifically, the groups said the FCC has informally sanctioned the practice of allowing translators to short-space existing LPFM facilities — i.e., allowing translator proposals to be spaced shorter than what LPFM services are allowed to propose to translators — without legally testing the issue. “This, by definition, affords a higher status to translators,” the groups said, a practice they say violates the LCRA.
In the case of a short-spacing, the groups said, a translator applicant “is free to propose endless minor changes and modification around the LPFM in perpetuity, but the LPFM is locked into its coordinate position from moving any closer to the translator.”
“The bias preemptively deems service preference to the translator party, with the LPFM party saddled with one-way mutual exclusivity,” the groups said.
Common Frequency, Prometheus and CIM are calling for all the applicants they list in their filing to confirm that their engineering requests meet the demands of the LCRA Section 5. They should demonstrate this prior to licensing, the group said, or be subject to dismissal or rescindment.
A list of the applicants are listed in in Appendix A of the group’s filing, and include applicants from all over the contiguous United States as well as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.