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Wheeler: Let’s Move on AM Rules (With a Caveat)

Chairman plans an AM order but is hesitant on translators

Broadcasters who have been waiting for FCC action on AM “revitalization” are closer to being rewarded, though the news comes with some important caveats including one about FM translators.

Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post Monday, “In the coming weeks, I intend to conclude this open item with a Report and Order that will buttress AM broadcast service and ease regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters.” He said the proposed order would adopt measures to address practical problems and interference-related issues that have long plagued AMs.

Reacting here at NAB Show in Las Vegas, NAB EVP Communications Dennis Wharton said the broadcast lobby is “grateful” for the development. Several NAB Show sessions focus on the needs and challenges of AM radio, and a Monday Boot Camp delved into AM more deeply.

“AM broadcasters have uniquely served local communities for nearly 100 years. The time is ripe for the FCC to follow through on the tremendous efforts of Commissioners [Mignon] Clyburn and [Ajit] Pai so that AM broadcasters can continue to play a vital role in the fabric of our nation,” Wharton stated.

Wheeler, 31st chairman of the FCC, will appear at NAB Show Wednesday morning. His blog post did not spell out details of the proposed order but he said enough to suggest that not all AM advocates will find what they want in it.

“If adopted,” Wheeler wrote, “these measures will enable AM stations to operate more efficiently in today’s spectrum environment. For example, the proposed order would give stations more flexibility in choosing site locations, complying with local zoning requirements, obtaining power increases and incorporating energy-efficient technologies. These actions will help to ease some of the technical limitations that have hindered AM stations in serving their listeners.”

Wheeler said the so-called AM Radio Revitalization NPRM, launched by then-Acting Commissioner Clyburn, “started an important dialogue on the future of the AM band.”

However, the chairman wrote that some ideas that have been raised “deserve more discussion,” so he plans to circulate a further notice proposing to permit stations serving smaller communities to expand their limited day and nighttime service areas while protecting larger, Class-A stations’ core service areas. “As a result, these smaller market stations will be better able to overcome environmental interference.”

The further notice will also seek input on whether and how to open the expanded AM band, “whether that is for stations migrating from the standard band, for new stations or for all-digital stations.”

But Wheeler sounded far more hesitant note about allowing wider use of FM translators to serve AM licensees. He questioned whether opening a window is necessary, given the existing number of licensed translators, and asked whether government should “favor one class of licensees with an exclusive spectrum opportunity unavailable to others just because the company owns a license in the AM band.”