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NPR: Minimize Harm and Maximize Relief to FM Stations

Public broadcaster tells FCC that “innocent bystander” stations must be protected

According to National Public Radio, the time has come for the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a policy that minimizes the harm and maximizes the relief to FM stations who will be disrupted by the pending TV spectrum reallocation.

NPR said in that dozens of independent and locally operated public radio stations are “innocent bystander” stations that will be adversely affected by the post-incentive auction TV repack process.

Based on an informal survey of its stations, NPR found a significant number of noncommercial radio stations will be affected by the TV repack process because their FM transmitter antennas are located on or near towers used by one or more repacked TV stations. According to NPR, at least three public radio stations will be required to move their FM antennas to new towers, at least two stations must relocate their antennas on the same tower, and at least a dozen public radio stations must temporarily dismantle equipment or make other equipment changes.

These stations will be caught in a repack shuffle and will gain no benefit from the auction’s outcome, NPR said.

In addition, dozens more will be forced to temporarily reduce power and signal coverage or go off the air to accommodate the TV repack work — with no way to determine if, when and for how long their operations will be disrupted, NPR said in its filing.

Add to that the fact that inclement weather, delivery and installation delays, and lack of availability of qualified tower crews could cause unexpected delays and service disruptions, especially as the multiphase TV repack process unfolds over the coming months and years.

“Radio stations have virtually no control over the timing of these disruptions,” NPR said.

The public broadcaster is pressing the commission to ensure that the reimbursement process is flexible and manages to reimburse noncommercial educational broadcast stations to the fullest extent permitted by the Reimbursement Expansion Act, which directs the commission to reimburse FM broadcast stations for reasonably incurred costs.

While the commission may not be authorized to compensate radio stations for lost revenues, the FCC “isauthorized to fully reimburse FM stations for the costs to establish temporary auxiliary facilities needed to avoid such drastic outcomes,” NPR said in its filing.

The public broadcaster is also adamant that the FCC drop the proposed graduated priority system, a prioritized reimbursement system for new or modified auxiliary equipment. The system was proposed as part of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking involving station reimbursement that was issued in August 2018.

The NPRM’s proposed graduated prioritized scale for reimbursing the costs of building or modifying auxiliary facilities (in order to permit continued broadcasting during repack construction work) “is arbitrary, unnecessary and unacceptable,” NPR said. “This proposal could leave some public radio stations off-air or operating at significantly reduced power with reduced coverage area for days or weeks, with thousands of listeners in silence, and a devastating impact on station finances and operations.”

The proposal is based on the time a broadcaster is off air, which “is not the sole measure of the level of service disruption or the need for facilities to ‘reasonably minimize’ service disruptions,” NPR said in its filing.

NPR’s comments are in line with those shared by the National Association of Broadcasters. In a, the NAB said the commission should work to minimize disruption to listeners and treat those broadcasters who have been involuntarily affected by the repack fairly. NAB also said the commission should not adopt a sliding scale for FM radio reimbursement based on the length of time a station will be off the air.

“[This] would have significant unintended consequences that would disproportionately impact small and rural radio stations and their listeners,” the NAB said in its filing.

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