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FCC Moves Forward on Revitalizing AM Radio

Yesterday, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making setting forth a number of potential changes to its technical rules governing AM radio designed to revitalize AM stations and enhance the quality of AM service.

In the past several years, the Commission has instituted several changes to its AM rules and policies in hopes of improving AM radio and reducing the regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters. Among these are:

  • 2005 and 2008 – Announced simplified AM licensing procedures for KinStar (2005) and Valcom (2008) low-profile and streamlined AM antennas, which provide additional siting flexibility for non-directional stations to locate in areas where local zoning approval for taller towers cannot be obtained;
  • 2006 – Adopted streamlined procedures for AM station community of license changes;
  • 2008 – Adopted moment method modeling as an alternative methodology to verify AM directional antenna performance, reducing the cost of AM proof of performance showings substantially;
  • 2009 – Authorized rebroadcasting of AM stations on FM translators, which has proven to be extremely successful, with over 10% of all AM stations now using FM translators to provide improved daytime and nighttime service to their communities of license;
  • 2011 – Authorized AM stations to use Modulation Dependent Carrier Level (“MDCL”) control technologies, which allow AM stations to cut energy costs through reduced electrical consumption on transmissions and related cooling functions;
  • 2011 – Announced an FM translator minor modification rule waiver policy and waiver standards to expand opportunities for AM stations to provide fill-in coverage with FM translators;
  • 2012 – Authorized all future FM translator stations licensed from Auction 83 to be used for AM station rebroadcasting;
  • 2012 – Granted first Experimental Authorization for all-digital AM operation; and
  • 2013 – Improved protection to AM stations from potential re-radiators and signal pattern disturbances by establishing a single protection scheme for tower construction and modification near AM tower arrays, and designating moment method modeling as the principal means of determining whether a nearby tower affects an AM radiation pattern.

Now, with the introduction of yesterday’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FCC is considering yet more changes to its rules to help AM radio. Among the proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making are:
(1) Open an FM translator filing window exclusively for AM licensees and permittees during which AM broadcasters may apply for a single FM translator station in the commercial FM band to be used solely to rebroadcast the AM station’s signal to provide fill-in and/or nighttime service. The window, as proposed, would have the following limitations:

  • Applications filed during this window must strictly comply with the existing restrictions on fill-in coverage governing AM use of FM translators (e.g., they must be located so that no part of the 60 dBu contour of the FM translator will extend beyond the smaller of a 25-mile radius from the AM station’s transmitter site, or the AM station’s daytime 2 mV/m contour; and
  • Any FM translator station authorized though this filing window will be permanently linked to the licensee or permittee of the primary AM station acquiring the authorization, and the FM translator authorization may not be assigned or transferred except in conjunction with that AM station.

(2) Modify the daytime community coverage standards for existing AM stations contained in Section 74.24(i) of the FCC’s Rules to require only that stations cover either 50% of the population or 50% of the area of the station’s community of license with a daytime 5 mV/m signal. This proposal would not affect applications for new AM stations, or proposals to change the community of license of an existing AM station, both of which will continue to require that 100% of the community of license receive at least a 5 mV/m signal during the day, and cover at least 80% of the community of license at night with a nighttime interference-free signal.

(3) Modify nighttime community coverage requirements for existing AM stations by (i) eliminating the nighttime coverage requirement for existing licensed AM stations, and (ii) in the case of new AM stations and AM stations seeking to change their community of license, modify the rules so the station would be required to cover either 50% of the population or 50% of the area of the community of license with a nighttime 5 mV/m signal or a nighttime interference-free contour, whichever value is higher.

(4) Delete the AM “Ratchet Rule,” which currently results in a reduction of nighttime signal coverage for AM stations relocating their licensed facilities.

(5) Permit wider implementation of Modulation Dependent Carrier Level control technologies by amending the FCC’s rules to allow AM stations to commence operation using MDCL control technologies without seeking prior FCC authority, provided that they notify the FCC of the MDCL operation using the Media Bureau’s Consolidated Database System within 10 days of commencing such operation.

(6) Modify AM antenna efficiency standards, and consider whether the minimum field strength values set forth in various technical rules could be reduced by approximately 25%.

While the changes under consideration are significant, AM broadcasters will have a fair amount of time to contemplate them before comments on the proposals are due at the FCC. The comment deadline will be 60 days after Federal Register publication of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making, with reply comments due 30 days after that.