Should the FCC allow AM synchronous booster stations to be licensed permanently?
AM operators and others have the opportunity to weigh-in thanks in part to the urging of a broadcaster in Puerto Rico who has been using synchronous systems for years but is about to lose his experimental licenses.
The possible permanent licensing of such boosters has been an ongoing discussion within the industry. Some have lamented that formal licensing of boosters is not part of the FCC’s AM Radio Revitalization efforts. But synchronous AM transmission is a complex technical issue; and some observers have said the motive behind some existing synchronous operations is not experimentation, as intended by the FCC, but rather increased coverage.
Wilfredo Blanco-Pi, along with his son Jorge, operates two AM stations in Puerto Rico — call signs WAPA and WISO — and has operated three boosters, WI2XSO, WI3XSO and WA2XPA, for years.
In November, he received an FCC shutdown order for his synchronous stations, effective next May. In the letter, the Media Bureau told him that AM synchronous authorizations were intended for temporary experimental operations but noted that his boosters have been in operation for 17, 14 and 13 years respectively. Apparently concluding there is nothing more to be learned from those authorizations, it said it would renew the licenses for six months but that his authorizations then would be cancelled and the call signs deleted.
An FCC official told Radio World that the temporary experimental licenses issued to AM booster stations were handed out to test that low-power co-channels can operate at the same time without objectionable interference. Having confirmed this assumption, the source said, the licenses, which are limited under commission rules to five years, were cancelled.
Blanco-Pi had already asked for a rulemaking (read it here) and now has asked the commission to reconsider the cancellation. “The action of cancelling abruptly the license of our synchronous boosters is a de-revitalization measure that would put in distress a small AM radio broadcaster,” he wrote.
“I have invested over a million dollars throughout the years, and decades of work to improve the synchronous booster system,” he told the commission. “And now, unexpectedly and hastily, the AM branch orders [us] to shut down all of our three AM boosters in six months.” He said his system had been “applauded by engineers and specialists in AM transmission” including Tom King of Kintronic Labs (read a Kintronics technical paper on that topic here).
He said that Commissioner Ajit Pai had encouraged others to experiment with synchronous boosters but that the FCC’s action in his case would discourage such experimentation. He also balked at the fact that the FCC cited a five-year term to justify his cancellations yet the only requisites on the construction permits and licenses are an annual review and a note that the installations would be subject to the outcome of an eventual rulemaking.
Back in 1987, the FCC opened a notice of inquiry into synchronous technology in Docket No. 87-6. It urged broadcasters to investigate the potential benefits of synchronous operation. In 1989 the commission declined to issue rules, citing technical uncertainties that could take years to work out, but said it generally would continue to authorize experimental authorizations in support of stations investigating the idea (read it here).
Now, despite the opening of a comment window, son Jorge Blanco-Galdo told Radio World in an email that he is not heartened. In his opinion, the FCC has shown no interest in continuing with AM boosters.
“The petition for rulemaking on making permanent AM boosters was made on January 2014 during the AM revitalization process, [and] the commission didn’t include it in the NPRM [notice of proposed rulemaking] nor in the FNPRM [further notice of proposed rulemaking].” He expressed frustration with the cancellation process and the way in which the FCC announced the comment period: “No statement by the Media Bureau, the AM branch or the commissioners is made encouraging people to participate with their comments, contrary to what they did in the AM revitalization process … The Daily Digest announcement is made by the Consumer Division in a way nobody knows it’s about synchronous boosters.”
He said, “The best way to encourage broadcasters to get involved in installing AM synchronous boosters is to have installed and working a successful system just as ours,” Blanco said. “If these boosters are shut down by the FCC — stating now and never before that a booster is meant to last only five years — no broadcaster will be interested in investing in AM boosters.”