On Wednesday, the Local Community Radio Act was passed by the House of Representatives in a voice vote.
Nearly identical legislation is in the Senate, which is regarded as almost certain to pass it, and probably before Christmas. President Obama has indicated he will sign the Act.
When the LPFM service was first created, FCC engineers proposed to allow LPFM stations at any distance from full-power stations on the 2nd and 3rd adjacent frequencies. (0.4 or 0.6MHz from the full-power station) The Commission itself established distance separation requirements for stations 0.4MHz from full-power operations, but felt requirements for 0.6MHz separation were unnecessary.
Lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters resulted in the enactment by Congress of a rider on the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2001 which required the FCC to subject LPFM stations to the same 0.6MHz separation requirements as full-power stations. The bill covered a wide variety of topices beyond LPFM. Then-President Clinton opposed the LPFM restrictions, and had said he'd veto a standalone bill enacting them. However, he felt couldn't veto the entire wide-ranging Appropriations Act over the LPFM provisions.
The result was to make licensing of new LPFM stations FAR more difficult in all but the most rural areas. Here in Nashville, several of the most suitable frequencies for LPFM were placed off-limits. 94.9 and 103.9 would probably be the best choices -- but WSM-FM 95.5, WKDF 103.3, and WGFX 104.5 make the use of those frequencies illegal. A resourceful group did manage to win a permit for a LPFM here. But they had to use 98.9, a frequency where they suffer greatly from interference from a full-power station 35 miles east of town, and where they must locate their transmitter well to the west of the city to avoid interfering with the full-power station. 103.9 would have been a much better choice, if only it had been permissible.
Ironically, the Congressional action applies only to LPFM stations. It does not apply to FM translators. These translators may operate on 0.6, and even 0.4MHz separation. And they may use up to 2.5 times the power of LPFMs and even higher antennas.
An example I like to use is that of 90.5MHz at West Memphis, Arkansas. If a West Memphis church wished to build a station to broadcast their services and provide a service to religious youth in the community... they could not use the 90.5 frequency to do so. It's too close to stations across the river on 89.9 and 91.1.
However, if a firm 250 miles up the river in St. Louis wished to use 90.5 to relay programs originating in Missouri, that's perfectly permissible.
Here in Nashville, we have a translator station on 90.7. It's located less than a mile from Nashville Public Radio's transmitter on 90.3. And 100% of its programming arrives via satellite -- from Idaho.
This week's House action will remove the requirement that LPFM stations separated by 0.6MHz be fully protected. (the Appropriations Act never did establish a requirement for the FCC to provide 0.4MHz protection. The Commission had already done so by its own motion; apparently it never dawned on Congress that the FCC might repeal that requirement!)
The move will make 94.9 and 103.9 usable for LPFMs in Nashville. (offhand I can think of four more frequencies that may also become usable) It looks like four new frequencies will become available for LPFM in Milwaukee. Other cities will benefit similarly.
Third-adjacent protection does not disappear completely. Provisions will require:
- Third-adjacent protection is not relaxed if the full-power station is a non-commercial operation carrying a radio-reading service for the visually-impaired on an analog subcarrier. (many NPR affiliates do this)
- The FCC must address 3rd-adjacent interference to the stations being relayed by FM translators. (in practice it is hard for me to imagine this will be a significant problem)
- Third-adjacent LPFMs must announce the possibility of interference and tell affected listeners to report interference to the station. (which then must address it and notify the FCC)
A provision will also require the FCC to ensure licenses are available for both LPFMs and FM translators, "based on community needs". A story on a website for radio businesspeople colors that provision "The FCC is also instructed to make sure that LPFMs are not granted to the exclusion of FM translators and boosters."
I would tend to read that the other way around: that when deciding whether an available frequency goes to a LPFM or a translator, the FCC must consider whether the proposed facility will address the needs of the local community. Translators carrying signals from 250 miles away are unlikely to trump LPFMs under this test.