Monday, April 20, 2009

FCC makes localism proposals

The FCC has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 09-30) on Policies to Promote Rural Radio Service and to Streamline Allotment and Assignment Procedures.

There are thirteen specific points in this NPRM:

1. Modify the 3rd and 4th priorities used when considering proposals to assign new FM channels.
Since 1982, there have been four priorities considered when deciding which of several competing proposals will be accepted:

1. First fulltime aural service to an area.
2. Second fulltime aural service to an area.
3. First station assigned to a community.
4. Other public interest matters.

The latter has generally resulted in assigning the channel to the community with the largest population. It's also the only point that ends up being considered in many cases. There are few places left that aren't reached by at least two radio stations. And in most cases, petitioners looking to have a new channel allotted are able to find at least one community within the desired service area that doesn't already have a station licensed there.

So the channel goes to the town with the largest population. Which is often a suburb of a large city. The applicant who proposes to allot the channel to provide the first local service to a rural town is likely to lose out to the applicant who is theoretically providing a first service to a larger town -- but in practice is providing the 37th service to a large city.

The situation is worse on AM. On FM, once a channel is allotted to a community, an auction is held to determine who gets to use that channel. On AM, an auction is only held if no one applicant proposes a facility that serves a significantly greater population than any other. This doesn't happen very often. Usually, the applicant who proposes to serve the most people wins.

The proposals:
To consider any station that would be located in an Urbanized Area, or that provides a "city-grade" signal across a majority of such an Area, or that could legally make technical changes that would provide such a signal, to be licensed to that Urbanized Area. A proposal to allot a new Class C3 channel to Millersville, Tennessee would not count as "first service", even though Millersville doesn't already have any stations, because such a station would provide city-grade service to most of Nashville. (which already has plenty of stations!)

To not consider a larger community as automatically deserving of AM service if 75% or more of the population within the city-grade service area already receives five or more radio stations. (AM or FM)

To, when considering which proposal would serve more people, to pro-rate populations against the number of stations received, using a "service value index".

2. To limit the ability of stations to move from smaller communities into larger ones.

The proposal:
To, when deciding which of a number of competing applications/allotments to grant, consider a move to a community within an Urbanized Area as a move to that Urbanized Area. See above.

3. To provide a priority for Native American groups wishing to serve tribal lands.

The proposal:
To provide a preference to Native American tribes, if at least 50% of the city-grade coverage of the proposed allotment, AM station, or non-commercial FM station would be on tribal lands; the station would be the first licensed to the requested community; and that community would itself be on tribal lands.

Any permit won through such a preference would have to be held by eligible tribes for at least four years.

4. To prohibit downgrading an AM facility after using the greater facilities to win the permit.

An AM applicant who proposes to serve more people is more likely to win the permit. Today, that applicant can then downgrade their parameters and still keep the permit.

The proposal:
To require those who win such preferences to build facilities that serve as many people as their original proposal, for at least four years.

5. To require an AM application to be technically acceptable at the time of filing.
In a recent AM auction, of 1,311 applications filed, 69 didn't even have enough technical information to determine whether they were mutually-exclusive with other applications. 188 were ineligible to be processed.

The proposals:
To require that AM applications must, when filed, protect existing stations and previously-filed applications from interference, and must provide "city-grade" coverage to the proposed city of license, day and night.

To require that such applications be complete.

6. To allow "non-universal" settlement proposals and engineering solutions.
Often, two or more mutually-exclusive applications are filed. Sometimes, the exclusivity is eliminated by applicants convincing other parties to withdraw their applications, or by amending their applications to remove the mutually-exclusive condition. However, such proposals will not be accepted by the FCC unless they completely eliminate the mutually-exclusive condition. If four applications are mutually-exclusive, and three of them reach agreement to clear that condition, the applications still go to auction as the fourth is not part of the agreement.

The proposal:
To accept such "non-universal" settlements provided they're adequate to make at least one of the applications grantable.

7. Limit how many AM applications may be filed in a window.
AM applications are filed in "filing windows". In the window for Auction #84, 460 applicants filed 1,311 applications. The Commission feels many of these applications were filed speculatively -- applicants hoping at least some of their proposals wouldn't have to go to auction. Some of the applicants who received some permits without auction decided not to file the paperwork to go ahead with other applications. Ten applicants filed more than 20 applications; one couple, filing under their individual names and the name of a corporation in which they were the only stockholders, filed 85 applications.

The proposal:
To limit applicants to five applications in an AM auction window.

8. Provide flexibility in the deadline for filing post-auction paperwork.
Clerical proposal to ensure auctions held in November don't require major paperwork be filed during Christmas week.....

The proposal:
To allow Commission staff to set deadlines more than 30 days after the close of bidding.

9. Prohibit FM translator "band-hopping".
FM translator filing windows are held separately in the commercial (92-108) and non-commercial (88-92) bands.

A "minor change" in frequency for a FM translator is a move of 600KHz or less, or a move to a frequency removed by 10.6 or 10.8MHz from the existing frequency. (the "intermediate frequency" of most FM receivers) "Minor change" applications may be filed at any time -- "major changes" may only be filed during an appropriate filing window.

A number of applicants in the 2003 window for FM Auction #83 filed for, and received, permits to operate in 92.1-92.5 or 98.7-102.7MHz. They then promptly filed to move to new frequencies in the 88-92 band. Translators operating below 92MHz may receive their primary signal via satellite - that's not permitted for translators in the commercial band.

The FCC feels this is unfair to applicants who were waiting for a valid non-commercial translator filing window.

The proposal:
To prohibit a FM translator from changing frequency from below 92MHz to above 92MHz (or vice-versa) unless it's been on the air for at least two years.

10. Define which AM applications filed during a window are mutually exclusive.
The FCC staff considers applications filed during a window to be mutually exclusive if they are mutually exclusive with existing stations or any other applications filed during the same window. Some applicants felt an application should only be considered mutually-exclusive with other applications that were filed first.

The proposal:
To codify current staff practice.

11. Clarify the New Entrant Bidding Credit.
Small businesses and minority- and female-owned applicants are eligible for a bidding credit in broadcast auctions, if they don't have an interest in any other station serving the same area.

Potentially, an applicant could "game the system" by either filing an application for reduced power (that wouldn't have an overlap in coverage with an existing co-owned station) and then increasing power after winning the auction; or by winning the auction and promptly transferring the station to another party that isn't eligible for the credit.

The proposals:
To consider an application to overlap with a co-owned station if a station of maximum power for the class, located at the reference coordinates of the allotment would overlap. Even if the applicant actually proposes a different site and/or lower power.

To require that the credit, plus interest, be refunded to the government if the station is sold and the buyer is not eligible for the credit. The proposal doesn't set an expiration date for this requirement.

12. Clarify the New Entrant Bidding Credit.
(yeah, same heading as #11)

Apparently some applicants have made changes in ownership between the date they filed their applications and the date of any associated auction -- changes that leave the applicant no longer eligible for the credit. Applicants have argued their eligibility is "frozen" on the filing deadline.

The proposal:
To require the applicant remain eligible for the bidding credit through the final grant of a construction permit, or the applicant would be required to reimburse the government for the credit.

13. Formalize the conditions under which "alternate methods" may be used to show a proposed station would provide a "city-grade signal" or wouldn't interfere with other stations.

Normally, the coverage of an FM station -- both for purposes of proving it provides adequate coverage to the principal community, and for showing it won't interfere with other stations -- involves looking up the power and antenna height above average terrain (HAAT) on a chart. In cases where terrain "departs widely" from the standard assumption, stations may use other methods to show coverage or lack of interference.

The proposals:
To consider terrain to "depart widely" if the HAAT along a given radial varies by more than 30% from what the HAAT would be on the same radial if it were calculated only for distances between 3km from the tower and the outer boundary of the community.

To consider terrain to "depart widely" if the "terrain roughness factor", measured between distances of 10 and 50km from the antenna on the radial passing through the center of the community, is 20m or less or 100m or more. (the standard "roughness factor" is 50m)

Phew. That was a lot of typing. See the next post for something more concise.

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