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Pai Cedes Ground on AM Translator Window

“To be clear, this is not my first choice,” he says

The last few days at the Federal Communications Commission have seen something of a retreat — or at least a concession to reality — for advocates of a translator window for AM stations. Whether this will be a short- or long-term setback remains to be seen.

Commissioner Ajit Pai today altered his position regarding a possible filing window for AMs to apply for FM translators. He said he will support implementation of a 250-mile waiver in the near term, though he says a translator window must be part of the final outcome. He insists that while translators are not a “panacea for the technical problems plaguing the AM band,” a translator “can serve as a vital bridge to the future for some AM broadcasters as we work on fixing the AM band’s long-term problems — work that won’t be finished overnight.”

Still, this is a shift for Pai: Over several weeks, the Republican commissioner, who has been vocal on the AM revitalization topic, dismissed a relocation waiver as “unworkable” and instead vigorously called on fellow commissioners to include a translator window as part of the pending revitalization action.

But as he laid out the situation in a speech to a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters advisory board, an immediate translator window doesn’t have the commission votes. So he shifted his stance and said that “in the spirit of accommodation” he would follow tactics suggested by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

She said a few days earlier that the FCC should implement a 250-mile waiver first, opening an AM-only translator window only later, after completion of the commission’s spectrum incentive auction. After studying that statement “carefully,” Pai said, he now supports a revised timeline: “The Media Bureau would be instructed to implement the 250-mile waiver process in 2016 precisely as Commissioner Clyburn set forth in her statement. The Media Bureau would also be instructed to implement in 2017, following the incentive auction and the 250-mile window, the FM translator window for AM stations that Commissioner Clyburn has rightfully called ‘sound policy.’”

This is not his first choice, however; and he made it clear he wasn’t happy with the shape of this debate, or Chairman Tom Wheeler’s stance on it. “As far as I can tell, the idea only has one vocal opponent in this country. Unfortunately for fans of AM revitalization, that opponent heads our agency.”

Pai feels that a translator window doesn’t involve free spectrum, as Wheeler has said; instead it would involve an auction, and licensees also pay regulatory fees. An AM window for FM translators would be no more a giveaway than any other translator window, he argued. Pai also said that Wheeler’s doesn’t make sense in light of recent actions in support of LPFM, which he supported. “If you think that an FM translator window for AM stations is a giveaway of free spectrum, it is an even more apt description of the LPFM window.” And he took note of the spectrum “set-aside” in the broadcast incentive auction. “During that auction, the FCC is poised to give away discounted spectrum to corporate giants worth many billions of dollars. And that, according to FCC leadership, is a ‘groundbreaking’ subsidy that should be celebrated.”

Pai declines to believe that it would be impossible to open a translator window until after the incentive auction. And he found it “strange” to be told that the chairman can’t support a translator window because it would involve giveaway of spectrum while being told by the Media Bureau that the commission can’t conduct a translator window until 2017 because auction personnel are too busy with other matters.

“Taken together, these arguments don’t appear to reflect principled opposition to holding an FM translator window,” he said. “But I am willing to do whatever I can to reach a compromise in this proceeding that will help struggling AM broadcasters. I hope that this finally brings us to consensus, and toward action.”

Staffers have been mum on the mechanics of a possible window. Clyburn had raised the issue in her statement by saying that the translator window would not provide “timely relief to AM broadcasters … who would have to wait until 2017 to take advantage of this relief, purportedly because of a delay in implementation by the Media Bureau.” Radio World is seeking to confirm which specific factors potentially could delay that implementation.

But the overall goal, Pai said, is to reach a compromise in the proceeding to help struggling AM broadcasters. Quoting a proverb to the religious broadcasting audience — “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” — Pai said he was hopeful this new viewpoint will bring the commission to consensus and toward action.

In a somewhat ominous tone, however, he said more turmoil could be in store. “Now, if commissioners are not willing to vote in accordance with their publicly stated position on an issue, then there is nothing more to be done,” he said. “It will be obvious that something else is driving the FCC’s decision — something entirely unrelated to AM radio.”

Pai’s statement can be found here (PDF).