More Decisions to Come in Translator/LPFM Scrum

AMs already have won expanded access to pool of FM translators
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AMs already have won expanded access to pool of FM translators
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WASHINGTON — Industry organizations are weighing in on how the FCC will juggle demand for FM spectrum from translator applicants, AM stations that want to use those translators and low-power FM hopefuls.

One decision has been made, and AM operators soon will have more access to the FM band as a result.

The FCC in 2009 began allowing AM signals to be carried on FM translators; but until now, only translators authorized as of May 1, 2009 could be used. Some 500 to 600 AMs are doing so, BIA/Kelsey Vice President Mark Fratrik told Radio World.

A practical effect of that date restriction was to exclude pending Auction 83 FM translator applications from the pool of potential “cross-service” translators.

The FCC now has decided that any translators ultimately approved from among the current backlog of 6,500 or so applications can be used to retransmit AM signals. (The change takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, which had not happened as of late April.) However the commission deferred a decision on whether future translator applicants may retransmit AMs.

The lifting of this date restriction for backlogged applicants is among the FCC’s initial decisions about how to sort its backlog of translator apps yet leave spectrum in some 150 markets to license more low-power FMs. Communications attorneys believe that, based on the commission’s initial processing guidelines, only about 1,000 of the pending FM translators would be granted.

Comments filed with the FCC shed light on the competing interests involved.

Qualifying criteria?

When the commission made proposals last summer regarding translators and LPFMs, it said it wanted to encourage more AMs to retransmit signals to improve the AM service. That’s when it proposed lifting the 2009 restriction and asked for public input about its LPFM and FM translator proceedings.

Most commenters to Dockets 07-172 and 99-25 had favored lifting the date restriction. They cited public service benefits that FM translators provide AMs. Some felt that the restriction was unnecessary now that the commission plans to open an LPFM window later this year.

The few who opposed the change argued for a restriction on cross-service translators in general.

Some LPFM proponents sought qualifying criteria for cross-service translators, like local ownership, lack of in-market FM ownership by the AM licensee and quality of AM signal.

The commission declined to take up many of these arguments, saying the record supports the change. It did leave the door open to modifying the cross-service translator portion of its policies; it intends to revise its FM translator rules before opening the next translator auction application window.

NPR had urged the agency to keep the date restriction until the commission adopts anti-trafficking policies so that traffickers in the pool of Auction 83 FM translator applicants would not benefit from the change. The commission, to date, has not acted on that suggestion.

What follows are excerpts of the most pertinent comments explaining the essence of the issue.


Jane Mago, executive vice president, general counsel, headed the list of several executives who contributed to comments filed by the National Association of Broadcasters:

Experience since the rule change took effect … demonstrates that permitting AM stations to use FM translators has been a resounding success for communities across America. …

In July 2010, WHCU(AM), Ithaca, N.Y., received authorization to rebroadcast its signal on FM translator W240CB, broadcasting on 95.9 MHz. The translator has improved WHCU’s service by enabling it to better reach parts of Tomkins and Tioga Counties, and for the first time, penetrate the dormitory and office buildings on the campuses of Cornell University and Ithaca College.

The translator has also allowed WHCU to cover Cornell football, hockey and lacrosse games that take place at night to an audience that previously could not listen because of the station’s restricted nighttime power. Importantly, the station has witnessed a surge in audience diversity to include more students and other young people tuning into its local news, weather and other coverage.

WTRN(AM), Tyrone, Pa., has also improved its local public service through the use of an FM translator. WTRN is located in a commuter community, with thousands of residents heading out early in the morning for work in State College and other locations. Before WTRN deployed an FM translator, its morning signal would be overcome by interference after about five miles from the station’s transmitter. With the translator, many listeners can now enjoy WTRN all the way to work. …

Other AM stations report that FM translators enable them to initiate or expand live coverage of high school and college sports, local election returns, nighttime weather emergencies and Emergency Alert System alerts, new formats, morning school closing announcements, church events, and other public affairs programming. …

To date, use of FM translators has helped many AM stations improve their service, retain or even build their audiences in the face of intense competition from competing media outlets, and thus improve their economic viability. However, a substantial number of AM stations have been unable to benefit because pre-2009 translators are unavailable in their markets. …

Eliminating the date restriction on AM stations’ use of FM translators will not reduce potential opportunities for future LPFM stations. Rather, lifting the date restriction will merely permit AM stations as well as FM stations to use translators from the same pool of pending applications to be granted under the ultimate process the commission adopts.

James M. Johnson, trustee for Glades Media Company, writes:
Glades’ AM station WOKC, Okeechobee, Fla., is rebroadcast over the facilities of an FM translator station. This arrangement has greatly contributed to the station’s ability to serve Okeechobee.

It has bolstered the financial viability of WOKC and materially contributed to the continued availability of a local radio service in Okeechobee. As a full-service radio station WOKC programs to meet the needs of its service area and is available to meet emergency needs in a rural area subject to severe weather.

Stuart W. Nolan Jr. is the attorney for Catholic Radio Association:
Any proposal to limit the use of FM translators to rebroadcast AM signals would undermine a tremendous tool for reinvigorating AM stations and facilitating the long-term economic vitality of the AM radio service. This tool should not be curtailed as a cost of invigorating the LPFM service.


Broadcast engineer and RW contributor Alan Jurison writes as an individual.

I believe that AM stations should be allowed to use any translator that has been licensed. The May 1, 2009 date would be too limiting for AM stations to be able to compete and obtain any newly granted FM translators. … The rule served its purpose to help launch the cross-service translator process, but its usefulness will have expired when this rulemaking is complete.


NPR urged the agency to keep the date restriction in place until the commission adopts anti-trafficking policies so that traffickers in the current pool of Auction 83 applicants will not benefit from the change. Several executives contributed to this filing; Terri Minatra, acting vice president for legal affairs, general counsel and secretary, topped the list:

The initial comments in this proceeding validate the commission's assessment that many of the applications filed during the 2003 FM translator filing window were not filed with the intention of constructing and operating the station. There is also recognition that, because of the substantial passage of time, many still pending applications may no longer be viable.…

Nothing in the commission’s rules sanctions the filing of an application for a broadcast station construction permit for the purpose of assigning the permit to another for profit. …

While the commission did, in fact, eliminate the rule barring the sale of construction permits for profit, it did so not to permit the warehousing of spectrum but because it believed that competitive bidding procedures would deter speculative filings. As the Third Further NPRM now concedes, that assumption “has proven to be unfounded in the Auction No. 83 context.”

There is simply no justification for rewarding entities that engaged in speculation by treating all pending FM translator station applications alike. …

Identifying the currently viable, bona fide FM translator applications will enable the commission and the remaining applicants to pursue engineering solutions resulting in the licensing of more FM translators without necessarily obstructing future LPFM opportunities. It will also preserve spectrum for future FM translator station use.


Michelle (Michi) Eyre, founder of REC Networks, writes:
We have … heard from minority owners that AM cross-service is necessary using case histories involving their own cross-service translators. REC continues to believe that once trafficking and integrity safeguards are placed in the FM translator service that AM stations that do not have a cross-owned FM station in the same market should be permitted to use FM translators for retransmission. …

We are also deeply concerned about the abuse that the commission has created with the cross-service AM translator rules. While we support minority-owned AM stations with no other FM radio holdings being able to put their signals on an urban FM translator, this has been abused by [broadcasters] who exploit the fill-in rule to increase the power to 250 watts regardless of antenna height.


Todd Urick, technical director for Common Frequency, tells the agency:
The … rebroadcast of AM stations on translators has basically created a brand-new price-inflated market for translators, and a fierce competition for secondary service channels with prospective LPFM applicants. CFI understands in certain circumstances [there ’s a] need for FM translator supplementation by AM licensees.

However, there is limited capacity on the FM band for AM stations that want to supplement their AM signal. More selective qualifying criteria for AM licenses need to be derived before removing the limit on cross-service translators as asked.

Qualifying criteria such as local ownership, diversity of ownership, amount of locally-originated programming and amount of signal deterioration at nighttime compared to daytime service area should be mulled over to craft selectivity points. Additionally, licensees that do not currently own FM channels in the market seem better candidates than those who do.