FCC Asked to Consider “Zonecasting” for FM Stations – Initial Comments Due May 4

In the last few weeks, both on the radio and TV side of the broadcasting house, significant actions have been taken to potentially expand the use of zoned broadcasting to allow broadcasters to better target their audience with programming and advertisements.  For TV, that is the proposed increase in use of distributed transmission systems, about which we will write in another article.  For radio, a petition for rulemaking has been filed by a company called GeoBroadcast Solutions, proposing to use FM boosters to be able to provide such targeted programming within an FM station’s service area.  The FCC last week issued a public notice asking for initial comments on the proposal – and those comments are due by May 4.

The FM zonecasting petition calls for a change in Commission rules that currently require FM boosters to simulcast 100% of the programming from their primary station.  The proposed change in the rules would instead say that FM boosters would have to substantially duplicate the programming of the primary station but would allow commercials, news reports or other short content to be dropped into the programming on a booster that would be different than that programming on the main station. The proposal suggests that this would allow more targeted advertising within a market as well as more targeted news and information (including emergency information) within the market.

FM boosters (unlike FM translators) operate on the same frequency as their primary station.  They cannot extend the contour of the primary station.  Since they operate on the same frequency as the main station, there is a concern that they can cause interference to that main signal.  Thus, currently, boosters are used principally in areas of irregular terrain to fill in gaps in coverage in areas within the predicted service area of a station where the main signal of the station can’t penetrate because of terrain obstructions.  In its petition, GeoBroadcast Solutions suggests that, through its technology, using directional antenna, slight offsets of the timing of the transmissions of the main station and booster and other techniques, the area of interference between the booster and the main station can be greatly reduced.

The FCC’s public notice asks whether the voluntary use of this transmission system should be allowed.  The comments, which are due by May 4, are just an initial round of comments that will help the FCC decide whether to move forward in analyzing this proposal.  If the FCC sees significant support, it would then have to propose specific rules for the service and advance them in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which would itself be subject to additional comments and reply comments.

This may be a promising system for many broadcasters allowing them to take advantage of localized coverage for news and advertising.  Perhaps one area of concern could come from suburban stations in local communities who could fear zoned advertising and programming competition from major market stations targeting these local communities.  Whether these concerns come to light will be seen in the initial comments and, if the FCC decides to move forward, in any Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that follows.

Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog