FCC Clarifies Upcoming Windows for Construction Permits for New Commercial and Noncommercial FM Stations (and a Few AMs Too)

At the end of last week, the FCC released several orders clarifying the rules for upcoming windows where construction permits for new FM channels will be made available to parties interested in starting new radio stations, and a few AM construction permits will also be auctioned off.  The Public Notice released on Thursday for commercial operators set the important filing dates and procedural rules for the July auction of 136 FM permits, as well as 4 AM permits in the St. Louis area that are available after an AM licensee whose license was challenged at renewal time surrendered the licenses for these AM stations (see the list of available channels here).  The FCC also issued a Public Notice setting a freeze on changes to other FM stations during the initial filing window, to stabilize the FCC’s database for parties interested in these new FM channels.  Also on Thursday, the FCC issued a draft order on the number of applications for which applicants will be able to apply in an upcoming reserved-band FM (channels below 92 on the FM band) filing window for noncommercial educational stations (NCE stations).

First, let’s look at the noncommercial draft order that is expected to be adopted at the FCC’s regular monthly Open Meeting on April 22 unless changes are made between now and then.  That order, about which we wrote here, asked whether the FCC should adopt a limit of 10 applications in the upcoming window for new noncommercial FMs or for major changes in existing stations.  While there were parties that requested that the limit be higher (particularly in rural areas where the likely demand will not be as great), and other parties expressed a belief that the limit should be lower (particularly as there will be few open channels in larger markets), the draft order suggests that the FCC will stick with the limit of 10 applications.  The FCC’s intent in adopting an application cap is to reduce processing backlogs and limit the number of situations where applicants will file applications that are mutually exclusive (i.e. where both cannot be granted without creating prohibited interference), while still allowing applicants to provide new noncommercial services throughout the country.  According to the draft order, the 10-application limit used in previous NCE windows still makes sense as a happy medium between the competing desires for expanded or narrower limits.

The dates for this NCE filing window have not yet been announced.  Presumably, the filing dates will be set once this order on application limits is finally adopted by the FCC.  If you are a nonprofit, educational entity interested in pursuing an application in this window, stay alert for the announcement of the dates for filing applications in this window.

For the commercial FM window, the FCC set the final rules for the auction, and established the other important dates leading up to the auction itself which it to start on July 27.  The most important of those dates is the window between 12:00 p.m. Eastern on April 28 through 6:00 p.m. Eastern on May 11 for the filing of “short-form” applications to participate in the auction.  If you want to be a bidder in July, you need to file a short-form application in this window.  That application will list the channel or channels in which you are interested in bidding, as well as providing information about the applicant including its owners and its other broadcast interests, and whether it has ever defaulted on obligations in past FCC auctions.  Other important dates include the following:

Auction Tutorial Available (via Internet) by April 14, 2021
Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Opens April 28, 2021, 12:00 noon Eastern Time (ET)
Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Deadline May 11, 2021, 6:00 p.m. ET
Upfront Payments (via wire transfer) June 16, 2021, 6:00 p.m. ET
Mock Auction July 23, 2021
Auction Bidding Begins July 27, 2021

Interested parties should read the Public Notice setting out the auction rules.  Especially if you have not participated in prior auctions, watching the FCC tutorial is also an important step in the preparation for the auction.

FM minor change applications will be frozen from April 28 to May 11 to stabilize the database for parties interested in filing in the window for short-form applications. As applicants in their short-form applications can reserve specific preferred transmitter sites for use on any of these new FM allotments, that freeze is important to assure the FCC that no one files a minor change application that ends up in a technical conflict with one of the auction applications.

If you are interested in starting a new radio station or adding to your existing holdings, this may be your chance no matter whether you are a commercial or noncommercial operator.  Pay attention to the rules already adopted for the commercial channels leading up to the July auction, and watch for more details if you are interested in the yet-to-be announced noncommercial filing window.

Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog