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Translator Debate Heats Up; Copps, McDowell Urge Adoption

Meanwhile, NAB tells the FCC that any "free spectrum" notion on translators is misguided

Two former FCC commissioners — one from each major political party — are urging the commission to let more U.S. AM radio stations apply for FM translators. Separately, NAB attorneys met last Friday with FCC staff to press the case and also push back on the notion that a translator window may constitute free spectrum for AM operators.

Former Acting Chairman Michael Copps, a Democrat, and former Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, wrote a commentary on the website The Hill. They said the FCC should follow through with the proposal to open a translator application window, an idea that Chairman Tom Wheeler has met with skepticism.

“Since the FCC first allowed AM stations to use translators in 2011, about 20 percent of AM stations have been able to find, buy and use an existing translator to improve their service, and in turn, cement their financial footing — a development the FCC has called an ‘unqualified success,’” Copps and McDowell wrote, urging the commission now to expand that as part of its AM revitalization program.

“Any other steps the FCC may take to help AM radio, no matter how well intentioned, would be relatively small change compared to an AM-only translator window, and do little to meet the FCC’s expressed goal of revitalizing AM radio.”

The National Association of Broadcasters circulated the Copps/McDowell commentary to media outlets and issued a statement from Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton: “NAB hopes the chairman will listen clearly to the bipartisan calls from past and current FCC members calling for meaningful revitalization of AM radio.” NAB cited recent news reports indicating that Wheeler “is the only FCC commissioner who opposes this exclusive application window.”

Separately, broadcasters continued their full-court press on the translator issue.

Representatives from NAB met with FCC Media Bureau staffers on Friday and told them that any notion that the commission should not open an exclusive translator window because it would somehow allow AM stations to obtain frequencies “for free” is “misguided.” Wheeler last week had said it’s not the policy of the commission to give away free spectrum.

Top attorneys for NAB — General Counsel and Executive Vice President Rick Kaplan and Associate General Counsel Larry Walke — met with four officials of the FCC’s Media Bureau, according to a filing with the commission. Kaplan and Walke told the staff that the idea of giving AM stations an exclusive window to seek FM translators is “widely supported and would be a huge victory for diversity.” They said it is “well past time” for the commission to act on this idea, which was put forth almost two years ago in the AM Radio Revitalization notice of proposed rulemaking.

In that NPRM, NAB argued, “The commission in found that such a window would give AM broadcasters a critical option for obtaining a translator because it would prevent speculative applicants and reduce MX filings while not impeding future translator opportunities for other services. It was a good idea then, and given the economic trends and continued technological challenges of AM radio, an even better one today.”

NAB said it “appreciates the chairman’s additional idea of a waiver to allow AM radio broadcasters to obtain and move existing translators located within 250 miles of their stations,” but that this would not be a substitute for a translator window, which it called “the hallmark of the commission’s proposal under then-Acting Chairwoman [Mignon] Clyburn.” Implementing merely a waiver, without a translator window, “threatens to favor large station groups over small ones and big markets over small, which runs counter to longstanding commission policy and the public interest,” NAB wrote.

According to the filing, the attorneys also told the FCC staff, “Any notion that the commission should not open an exclusive window because it would somehow allow AM stations to obtain these frequencies ‘for free’ is misguided and ignores the role that broadcasters play in local communities across the country.” Stations pay regulatory fees for the right to remain on the air, they argued; and stations that compete for frequencies in a window would be required to compete in an auction. Further, broadcasters “have significant and unparalleled public interest obligations, including most notably to provide their service for free to the public.” That’s not the case, NAB pointed out, for landline broadband services, commercial mobile services, cable or satellite TV, telco TV or even satellite radio services.

“Unless the commission is interested in a communications industry that supports only those services for which consumers must pay hefty fees, it should make it a priority to care about the health and well-being of free over-the-air radio and television,” NAB concluded.