Dream legislation to "sweeten the pot" for local community FM

This is a response to a letter to Radio World by Daniel Brown, Zebra Radio who was responding to Michelle Bradley of REC's previous letter to Radio World.

A mandatory shutdown of AM analog in favor of HD digital would be a very tough sell. Unlike digital TV, there is no major need to reuse the spectrum for other (non-broadcast) purposes. A mandatory shutdown of AM analog would be a major hardship on both listeners and broadcasters, especially the smaller "mom and pop" and minority owners. I do feel that while MA3 all-digital AM has its advantages for broadcasters, many smaller broadcasters would benefit more from an expanded FM band as there would be less of a need for the land where the AM station is located. Sometimes, the land an AM station is on is worth more than the station itself. These smaller stations would be better off being able to obtain a superior FM facility on a shared site. The expanded FM band (down to 76.1) would be the best place for it. A long term transition period must be put in place to best assure that compatible receivers are in circulation.

It is questionable whether the FCC has the statutory authority to mandate HD Radio receivers. I do not feel that the authority given in the old All-Channel Receiver Act would extend to radio. Congress would have to enact legislation to give the FCC this authority. This legislation should not include an AM analog shutdown. It should, at the minimum, call for all new receivers marketed to have WIDE-FM capability (76~108 MHz). There should be no need for an appropriation for converter boxes like we had with the DTV debacle. New radios will find themselves into new vehicles and store shelves, similar to how this was done in Japan. I am not sure if mandating HD Radio (the Xperi product) by statute would not violate any other laws or court cases. As much as I also support the worldwide deployment of Digital Radio Mondiale, HD Radio is pretty much a sealed deal in the USA. AM stations remaining on AM should be able to decide whether or not to transition. The clearing of some AM stations such as Class C and D could give existing Class A and B AM stations to eventually improve their daytime and nighttime facilities.

No matter what, I don't feel this can entirely fall on the FCC. We need legislation, a Local Community Radio Improvement Act, an omnibus legislation that assures more local radio and better local radio in the long term. Provisions of this LCRIA can include:

  • A mandate that all FM receivers sold in the United States has the capability to tune the entire band from 76~108 MHz.
  • A freeze on all new Channel 5 and 6 TV facilities at enactment and immediate deployment of the 76~82 and 82~88 MHz spectrum in areas outside of the areas served by full-service Channel 5 and 6 stations. LPTV stations are secondary and would have to yield to new primary FM stations in the band.
  • The creation of one new Class C3/B1 FM allotment in the 87.1~87.9 band in each community where Channel 6 LPTV stations currently operate. This allotment will be auctioned off giving the operators of the so-called "franken FM" stations a chance to bid on a primary and permanent assignment.
  • A long term timeline for the closure of first, Channels 5 and 6 and an then eventual closedown of the entire VHF-low spectrum (Channels 2 to 6) and a mandatory primary allotment at 54~60 MHz to the Amateur Radio Service for television experimentation (that last part is a stretch, I know). If ATSC3 is such a great thing its being promoted as, then the ability to channel share these low band stations, should be possible.
  • A definition of a broadcast translator as a facility intended to extend a nearby (distance to be defined) FM station's primary output into an area that is otherwise obstructed by terrain. With that, a statutory ban on translators for AM stations and a mandate that translators must rebroadcast the primary stream of an FM station effectively prohibiting the use of FM translators for rebroadcasting HD2/3/4 streams. There would need to be a timeline for existing translators to discontinue their then-noncompliant programming. This includes the surrender of all Auction 99 and 100 translators. Many other translators would surrender as they don't have anything they would legally broadcast.
  • A national ownership cap on noncommercial educational stations and FM translators. Existing noncompliant stations would not be able acquire stations and there would be a long term timetable to come into compliance. The cap would vary based on whether the NCE broadcaster is using non-reserved allotments in the 92~108 band (for example, a non-reserved allotment NCE station could count as 1.5 stations).
  • A reservation of 76.1~77.1 (6 channels) for NCE reserved band.
  • Repeal §632(a)(1) of the DC Appropriations Act (mandating specific channel protections for LPFM, giving the FCC more flexibility in deciding what is best for LPFM) §632(a)(2) regarding ex-pirates will remain.
  • Repeal §3(b)(1) of the LCRA which specifies distance separation giving the FCC the statutory flexibility to assign LPFM stations based on best engineering practices and spectrum efficiency.
  • Repeal §3(b)(2) of the LCRA to remove the LPFM specific second adjacent language and replace with language that (1) eliminates third-adjacent channel protection requirements across the board in all radio services and (2) permits "de minimis" interference on second adjacent channel (de minimis defined as 0.1% population of the "victim" station's service contour or 3,000 persons, whichever is lower).
  • Repeal §§ 4 & 7 of the LCRA as it is moot with the elimination of the third-adjacent channel requirement.
  • Modify §5 of the LCRA to prioritize LPFM in urban areas and translators in rural areas, but not to allow an LPFM to displace a translator (or vice versa) unless the translator is carrying a primary station now prohibited under this legislation.
  • Define both LPFM and FM translator stations as having a maximum service contour of 7.3 km (250w @ 32m HAAT) in areas east of the Mississippi River, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and California south of 40 degrees latitude and 13.3 km (250w @ 107m HAAT) in all other locations. Provide a timeline for FM translators to come into compliance.

Yes, this is dream legislation, but I consider it sort of an "FM Revitalization". Radio still needs to remain significant as a service that's there when broadband can't be.