In a move that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said "breaks a longstanding logjam on spectrum," the agency today took steps to create new low power FM radio stations and to greenlight some applications to rebroadcast programming from other stations.
The two competing interest groups use the same limited airwaves, and for years have been locked in a battle that one side called “as intractable as the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
The low power FM stations, which cover about a 3.5 mile radius, are authorized for non-commercial educational broadcasting –targeted local news, for example, or cultural offerings. The FM translator stations repeat the signals of a full-power station, often a religious broadcaster, and can form chains covering long distances.
Genachowski called today’s 4-0 vote by the FCC commissioners a “locally tailored, market-based approach,” that offers something to both sides.
The morass began in 2000, when Congress put low power radio in urban areas on hold after commercial broadcasters complained about interference. The FCC went on to hold an auction for translator station licenses, only to freeze processing the 6,500 pending applications in 2007 when it realized there would be almost no urban frequencies left for low power radio.
FCC Audio Division Attorney-Advisor Kelly Donohue also noted that the application filing was skewed, with a few entities submitting vast numbers of applications “for the sole purpose of selling them.” The FCC in 2007 established a limit of 10 pending applications per applicant.
In January, President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which repealed restrictions on low power radio in urban areas. The act also directs the FCC to balance the competing demands of translator and low power stations.
In the Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today, the FCC proposed to lift the freeze on processing translator applications immediately and resume licensing of translator stations in most smaller and rural markets, where ample spectrum remains. It also lifted the 10-application cap.
In crowded urban markets, pending translator applications would be dismissed, though the applicants could re-file in the future. The commission also proposed moving forward with applications for new low power licenses within a year.
Also, the FCC asked for comments about how to handle translator applications from AM stations that want to broadcast in FM.
“Low power to the people. That’s been a dream for a lot of us for a long time,” said Commissioner Michael Copps, who called the proposal “a tiered approach that takes a realistic view of the spectrum available.”
The Prometheus Radio Project led the fight on behalf of the low power stations. Said Policy Director Brandy Doyle said in a news release Tuesday: “Today the FCC starts to redeem the promise made to thousands of community groups and national organizations that successfully fought to pass the Local Community Radio Act. The act requires the FCC to ensure channels for low power stations, and we believe a market-specific solution could accomplish that.”