FM Translators Still Contentious – New Filing Window, Suggestions for Resolving Interference Complaints and a Request for Reconsideration of Relaxation of Rules on the Location of FM Translators for AM Stations

For well over a decade, since the FM translator filing window of 2003, translators have been a controversial subject. While they have become more important to the broadcast ecosystem – especially as they now rebroadcast AM stations and HD-2 channels of FM stations – their use continues to be controversial, both because of the interference to other stations that is sometimes caused by new translators, and because of their perceived conflicts with LPFM applicants. With the recent announcement from FCC Chairman Pai that the first window for applications for new translators to serve AM stations that did not benefit from last year’s 250-mile waiver window will be accepted this summer, translators will only become more important to broadcasters (see the Chairman’s comments in his NAB speech, the text of which is here). Several recent actions indicate that policy issues dealing with translators will continue to be debated for at least the foreseeable future.

Two recent filings attempt to address the issue of interference between new or relocated translators and full-power stations. Issues arise from time to time, including some high-profile disputes in major markets, where new translators create, or are alleged to create, interference to full-power stations. Under the current FCC rules, any time a new or relocated translator creates interference to any regularly used FM signal, even outside of the usually protected contour of the full-power station, the translator is required to cease operations unless the interference can be remedied. In such situations, the translator licensee acknowledges the interference and changes facilities or channels to remedy it. But there are other cases where the reported interference objections have been challenged by the translator operator, as the alleged interference will occur far from the station claiming the interference, in areas where the translator operator suggests that no reliable FM signal from the protected station could really be received.

Two different methods of addressing these interference complaints were suggested by recent filings. The first is contained in a Petition for Rulemaking filed by the licensee of an AM station in Philadelphia, seeking to restrict interference complaints about the operation of “fill-in” translators where the complaints come from distant stations (see the Petition here). The petitioner seeks to prevent FM stations from pursuing interference complaints about translator operations beyond the FM station’s protected contour, where the translator is a “fill-in” translator rebroadcasting an AM or FM station (including an HD subchannel) within the primary station’s service area. If adopted, this proposal would limit the ability of FM stations to claim protection for distant listeners who may be loyal to the station and format, where those listeners live in areas close to translators serving as fill-ins for AM or FM HD signals. Obviously, broadcasters (sometimes the same company) are torn about such a proposal, wanting to protect their listeners at the fringes of their coverage area, while also protecting their translators that offer AM or FM HD program streams.

The NAB, in contrast, has taken a more nuanced approach. It has filed a Petition for Rulemaking (available here) offering a series of recommendations as to how to resolve translator interference complaints. First, it suggests that translators that receive interference complaints be allowed to move to any vacant FM channel to operate, not just to channels adjacent to their current operations. That proposal may offer relief in many markets, though there may be some spectrum-congested markets where no alternative channels may be available.

The NAB further proposes that interference complaints normally be supported by at least 6 complaints of interference from identified parties, and suggests a greater degree of identification of the complaining parties than now required to insure that they are from persons unaffiliated with the station which is complaining about the interference and to identify, with specificity, when and where the alleged interference is taking place. The NAB petition suggests that 6 complaints establishes that the interference is not a fluke, but that the number should be applied flexibly depending on market size, as in very small markets or very large ones, 6 complaints may not be the proper standard for judging if there really is an issue with a translator’s operation.

The NAB also proposes that, in most cases, interference should be judged by “on/off” tests of the translator. The NAB suggests that FCC urge, but not require, that the parties to a complaint (the complaining full-power station and the translator owner) go to the sites of interference, and turn the translator on and off to judge whether the translator is the true source of the interference that is alleged.

Both the NAB petition and that of the Philadelphia station are merely Petitions for Rulemaking. They each ask that the FCC start a rulemaking to look at these issues. The FCC already asked for comments on the Philadelphia station’s petition, and those comments are due on May 17 (see Public Notice here). The FCC now asks for comments on the NAB petition (comments due May 26). After receiving these initial comments, the FCC will decide whether to go next to a formal Petition for Rulemaking and, if it does, exactly what to propose in that rulemaking proceeding.

Finally, on top of all of this, Prometheus Radio Project has asked that the FCC reconsider its order that has already become effective relaxing the rules on the location of FM translators for AM stations (see its Petition here). The new rules offer flexibility to AM station owners by increasing the area in which their FM translators can operate (see our short summary here). Prometheus argues that this relaxation of the rules will increase the potential of translators imposing restrictions on the location of LPFM stations that are bumped from their current channels or otherwise need to change channels. This is the same argument raised in Prometheus’ Motion of Stay of the effective dates of the new translator rules (we offered our comments on that petition here). Comments on this Petition are due tomorrow (see FCC Public Notice here).

So, as in the past 14 years, translators still remain a controversial topic. Watch for action on these proceedings in the near future.