LPFM Rollout Creeps Along - Radio World

LPFM Rollout Creeps Along

But while supporters agree the future is secure for the new radio service, they cite issues concerning questionable applications, testing on third-adjacent channel protections and the final number of frequencies ultimately available after the tests are conducted that must be resolved by the FCC before LPFM can reach its full potential.
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Issues Still Need Resolution by FCC Before Service Is Finalized

WASHINGTON In the year since the first low-power FM applicants got the go-ahead from the FCC, about a dozen stations have flipped the switch on their newly minted 100W transmitters.

Spending as little as a dollar or two a day in operational expenses, these volunteer-run stations in California, Indiana, Louisiana and South Carolina are broadcasting local call-in shows, foreign language programs, church programs and world music.

For community groups still awaiting word on their applications from the FCC, the success achieved by the March list of eight licensed stations and several others on the air with temporary permissions while they awaited word on their license applications marks a step forward for a radio service that struggled to launch for more than two years.

But while supporters agree the future is secure for the new radio service, they cite issues concerning questionable applications, testing on third-adjacent channel protections and the final number of frequencies ultimately available after the tests are conducted that must be resolved by the FCC before LPFM can reach its full potential.

Questionable applications

The most pressing issue, say advocates, is the estimated 1,000 applications that contain questionable information or discrepancies that the agency has yet to clear up.

According to one supporter, the FCC's former Mass Media Bureau (now Media Bureau) has been ruling on noncontested applications first, while putting off others that face formal and informal objections filed by community groups as well as LPFM supporters.

"(The FCC) has admitted it," said John Broomall, LPFM consultant and creator of a Web site that follows LPFM called Christian Community Broadcasters. "That is their policy."

The FCC has said it is focusing on the applications with no apparent errors or objections, in an effort to get some stations on air.

"We're just, be sheer necessity, focusing on the cleaner applications," said an FCC source.

Supporters like Broomall, who are eager to get more LPFMs on air, are concerned about the pace of review for applications such as these and the type of decisions the commission will make.

(click thumbnail)Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project holds a homemade ground plane antenna, for demonstration purposes only, to explain lighting risks to volunteers who helped sign on WRYR(LP), Sherwood, Md.
In reviewing the applications under consideration at the FCC, Broomall has noticed cases in which multiple applications were submitted by government agencies such as the New York Department of Transportation, in which the agencies failed to indicate a priority frequency, as required by the FCC.

In another case, Broomall points to an applicant who filed applications for LP frequencies in Wisconsin and Texas using various church names without obtaining permission from the churches.

As for others new to the FCC application process, Broomall said some applicants simply made honest errors on their applications, bringing up another issue the FCC must resolve - whether to give them another chance by reopening the application windows or tossing out the applications that are not correct.

"The FCC doesn't have the right to ignore these petitions," he said.

The commission is not ignoring those applications, whether fraudulent or mistakenly wrong, said the agency source. But some decisions will be tricky, he said. For example, in cases where an application contains an incorrect tower height or antenna height, the commission has no data to check the figures against.

The error is usually noticed when the applicants are issued a construction permit, the source said. At that time, FCC staff calculates the height above average terrain for the applicant to figure out the power level allowed for the permit.

If an error is found, applicants can file a modification to a CP. Applicants must obtain a CP to build stations and once on air, they must file an application for a license within 10 days.

The commission handles contested applications in various ways. "We come across a petition and it might get put aside for a moment, but we're assigning them out to different people and just kind of working on them as we get to them," the source said. "They'll go to the people that need to review the issues raised."

Approximately 230 construction permits have been granted out of approximately 400 such applications approved by mid-March. The commission accepted more than 3,000 applications for the LP100 stations.

In addition, in mid-March, two hundred additional applications were accepted by the FCC in a public notice.

Constructive bottleneck

While the slow pace of analyzing the applications may be new to some LPFM observers, other LPFM supporters including Andrea Cano, director of the Microradio Implementation Project, appreciate the time the commission is taking to determine the validity of applications. The group found errors in approximately 1,000 LPFM applications, which it reported to the FCC.

For the past two years, the Microradio Implementation Project has assisted faith-based groups, community organizations, ethnic groups as well as other public organizations in launching LPFM stations.

Originally tasked with helping applicants through the license process, the role of the group shifted as the number of applications for LPFM grew, Cano said. In September 2001, the group began analyzing all 3,400 applicants to determine how and why they wanted to use a piece of the radio spectrum in an effort to help the stations get on air.

"Once the construction permits were granted, we followed up with the applicants to find out what they were doing," she said. "We wanted to celebrate them but we came to find out that in some cases, it wasn't even them that applied."

To help the FCC weed out the questionable applications, Cano said the Microradio Implementation Project, Broomall as well as other LPFM groups filed informal objections against the suspect applicants. In addition, Cano said the Microradio Implementation Project alerted applicants in the same community as the suspect applicant and informed them of the opportunity they had to file petitions to deny with the FCC.

"We looked into every community and we got an idea of what was happening there," Cano said.

But other factors may be slowing the commission's efforts to scrutinize LPFM applications, say some advocates such as Broomall. Among those is a recent court ruling that overturned a radio piracy case, giving former pirate broadcasters a second chance to be licensed as an LP frequency.

When it proposed the original LPFM rules, the FCC would have allowed so-called "rehabilitated" former pirates to apply for LPFM stations. Legislation subsequently passed by Congress and enforced by the commission states that anyone who has ever operated a pirate station cannot receive an LPFM license.

A federal appeals court ruled in February that a broad ban is unconstitutional and decided that the FCC may reject pirates on a case-by-case basis.

The caused the FCC to reevaluate who would get LPFM licenses in some communities.

Engineering study

Among the other remaining LPFM issues on the commission's plate is a congressionally mandated engineering study the FCC is required to conduct to determine if third-channel interference protections are still necessary to protect existing stations. Depending on the findings of this study, supporters say more stations could be eligible for licensing by the FCC.

The third-adjacent channel protection tests are to be conducted in different terrain and climates. It's not clear what the outcome would mean, said sources, such as exactly how many more stations could be licensed or if the service could be smaller than now envisioned.

Last year, after being funded from Congress, the commission asked Mitre Corp., a nonprofit group specializing in government contracts, to search for an engineering firm to conduct the tests in nine markets. The FCC expected Mitre to award a contract in April.

Roy Stewart has said he expects the process of testing and analyzing the results to take about a year. Stewart is former Mass Media Bureau chief and now chief of the Office of Broadcast License Policy within the new Media Bureau at the FCC.

Mitre officials declined to comment on the specifics of the agreement.

For now, the study poses little threat to LPFM, said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that offers legal advice to LPFM applicants. When the results are made public, she believes the issue will again move to the forefront of the news. For now, she said there is little concern among LPFM supporters because the "FCC hasn't moved quickly."

Others including the NAB feel that any new stations mean more interference on an already crowded radio band - a position the group took throughout the LPFM proceeding.

With so few stations currently on air, said Dennis Wharton, the NAB vice president of communications, it is too early to tell how much interference will occur.

Wharton said NAB will be following the third-adjacent channel tests closely and commenting to the FCC on the results.

Realized promise

Though the current number of LPFMs on air is far from the approximately 1,000 LP100 stations former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard had hoped would be licensed when the LPFM proceeding began, supporters are still certain his prediction will come true.

The lingering regulatory concerns have little effect on the new crop of broadcasters.

The community of Turlock, Calif., which has a population of 50,000, is enjoying its new radio licensee, according to KEPC(LP) station manager Gary Shriver. The former commercial broadcaster spearheaded the effort at his church, the Evangelical Free Church of Turlock, to launch a radio signal last October to broadcast Sunday church services, plus a daily dose of worship music and edgy Christian rock.

So far, the staff of three volunteers, including Shriver, is using an automated computer program called Virtual DJ Pro, made by Progressive-Concepts.com, to broadcast programming other than its live Sunday broadcasts.

Using a compilation of old and new equipment bought with the church's $25,000 budget, Shriver invested in an Internet-based automation system to decrease the amount of time required for personnel to operate.

Other than Shriver, who heads an advertising firm that specializes in marketing, planning, placement and production, none of the volunteers has radio experience. The have day jobs in fields such as television, education, computers and finance.

Using a DSL line at the station, Shriver can dial in from anywhere and access and control the programming. The automated system allows him to spend two to three hours a week programming the station and also quickly turn around the 15 or so voice messages he receives daily from listeners into station promos.

Internet-based solutions are an option for some LPFM broadcasters, said Pete Tridish, staffer at Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit organization that guides LPFM broadcasters through the launch process.

Prometheus is developing an Internet-based studio transmitter link that it plans to make available for free to LPFM stations so those facilities can stream their audio over the Internet using a broadband connection.

Tridish said a test version is available for stations to try by contacting Prometheus, through its Web site, www.prometheusradio.org.

Some broadcasters using this STL may experience an occasional fall-off of one to two seconds because of the performance characteristics of phone lines and modems.

Tridish said he and other Prometheus staffers are working on ways to account for the fall-off with a combination of buffering and planned outages during which stations would play an MP3 and allow the system to restart itself, so that listeners would not hear the fall-off. The fix, he said, would at least allow a station to at least go on air until it can afford a standard studio transmitter link.

Mac-based approach

LPFMs are using other unusual methods to program their stations.

Volunteers at WRFR in Rockland, Maine, believe theirs is the first station in the nation to use an iMAC computer with Mac-based software to manage programming, said Station Manager Joe Steinberger.

A French company named Logram donated the software, called Mac Broadcast, which was translated to English by Steinberger's brother. Approximately 180 stations in France use the Mac-based system.

Since the launch in February, Steinberger, a lawyer-turned-station manager, is taking some time off from his practice to devote himself to the 24-hour-a-day station. More than 50 volunteers from Rockland's population of 8,000 donate their time at the station, which broadcasts hour-long world music programs hosted by the volunteers as well as a few half-hour programs in foreign languages.

The FCC granted the license to a foreign language school called the Penobscot School, which Steinberger founded. But he does not intend to make the station an arm of the school, he said. He wants the station to be used by the community.

Steinberger said the school trustees have decided that WRFR will be an independent community station and will raises funds on its own through sponsorships from local businesses. One hundred Rockland residents and businesses each contributed a hundred dollars to fund the startup.

Though he has no formal audience data, Steinberger believes that more than 15,000 listeners, including those outside of Rockland, can tune into WRFR on their car radios. Though he's not sure of the actual number of listeners, he said the eclectic mix of programming is attracting fans.

"People say that the new station is a lot like radio used to be," he added. "We're trying to be informal about radio, more natural and more real."

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