It was once a tradition that the FCC would release a pro-broadcaster rulemaking decision on the eve of the NAB Show to ensure a warm reception when the commissioners and staff arrived to speak at the Show. I say it “once” was a tradition because pro-broadcaster rulemakings are none too common these days, a point alluded to by Chairman Wheeler at the Show when he said “Now, I’ve heard and read how some believe the Federal Communications Commission has been ignoring broadcasting in favor of shiny new baubles such as the Internet.”
Still, it was in the spirit of that tradition that the Chairman posted a blog titled “Let’s Move on Updating the AM Radio Rules” two days before his NAB speech. In it, he stated his intent to call for a vote in the AM Revitalization proceeding, which then-acting-Chairman Clyburn launched at a different NAB convention in September of 2013.
The post was unavoidably sparse on details given its short length, but one detail leapt out at radio broadcasters. While signaling movement on smaller issues (“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”), the post rejected what the industry sees as the real answer to revitalizing AM radio—opening a filing window for applicants seeking to build translators to rebroadcast AM radio stations on the FM band (a “translator” in the truest sense of the word).
Many see this as the most practical and consequential option since it would allow AM daytimer stations to serve their audiences around the clock, while overcoming many of AM radio’s worst obstacles—interference from appliances and electronics, as well as other AM stations, and AM’s limited sound quality. Most importantly, unlike a number of other potential solutions, FM translators avoid the need for everyone to buy a new radio in order to make the solution viable.
In his blog post, the Chairman gave two reasons for this surprising development. First, he questioned “whether there is an insufficient number of FM translator licenses available for AM licensees.” Second, he raised qualms about opening a window for only AM licensees, stating that “the government shouldn’t favor one class of licensees with an exclusive spectrum opportunity unavailable to others just because the company owns a license in the AM band.”
The first reason is, quite simply, factually unsupported by the proceeding record. In comments and reply comments filed just a year ago, the call for an FM translator filing window was deafening. It’s hard to believe the need for such translators has dramatically plummeted in just a year, or that the call for a window would have been so loud were there truckloads of FM translators already out there (in the right location) just waiting to be purchased. For anyone thinking that AM stations just want a “free” translator rather than buying one, applying for and building a translator is anything but free. In addition, the likelihood of mutually exclusive translator applications raises the specter of licenses being awarded by auction, ensuring that acquiring one from the FCC would hardly be “free”.
Of course, the oversupply argument is logically flawed as well. If a window is unnecessary, no one will show up with an application, and the only energy expended will be that of drafting a public notice announcing the window. In reality, however, few think that would be the result, as the FCC’s last general filing window for FM translators was back in 2003, long before AM stations were even permitted to rebroadcast on an FM translator. In other words, far from receiving preferential treatment, AM licensees have never even had an opportunity to apply for an FM translator to retransmit their stations.
All of which makes the second reason given in the Chairman’s post—avoiding an AM licensee-only filing window—even more curious. Under the current FM translator rule, Section 74.1232, applying for an FM translator license is not limited to broadcast licensees. The rule provides that “a license for an FM broadcast translator station may be issued to any qualified individual, organized group of individuals, broadcast station licensee, or local civil governmental body….” A common example of this is a community with limited radio service that applies for and builds an FM translator to rebroadcast a distant station that is otherwise difficult to receive locally, providing that community a reliable information lifeline. Indeed, the FCC is finding out on the television side that many of the TV translators that might be repacked out of existence are owned by local communities rather than licensees.
So the FCC would not even need to revise its eligibility rules in order to open an “FM for AM” translator window for all comers. Under the existing rule, anyone is free to apply as long as they have “a valid rebroadcast consent agreement with such a permittee or licensee to rebroadcast that station as the translator’s primary station.” In terms of being limited to serving as a translator for an AM station, that is the nature of an FCC filing window, as the FCC always specifies the type of application it will accept in any filing window announcement, and has never opened a “file for whatever service you want” window.
Thus, the record amply supports the need for an “FM for AM” translator window, and the current rules preclude any concern that a window would offer preferential treatment, as anyone who wants one can apply for one.
So what is the FCC waiting for?