Last week, at its regular monthly open meeting, the FCC resolved an issue that has been pending for years – what to do about Low Power TV stations operating on Channel 6 that use their audio to provide a radio service that can be heard on most radios at 87.7 -below the 88.1 official start of the FM dial, but still accessible on most FM radios. The Report and Order dealing with this issue also resolved, at least for the time being, two other issues related to TV channel 6. First, the FCC rejected a proposal to use channel 6 spectrum for FM radio in areas of the country where the spectrum is not being used for TV purposes. The other issue that was resolved, at least temporarily, was a proposal to modify or abandon the protections that noncommercial educational (NCE) stations operating in the reserved NCE band (between 88.1 and 91.9 on the FM dial) must provide to nearby TV stations operating on channel 6. While LPTVs providing FM service may have received the most attention in the trade press since the adoption of the order, those other two issues may actually have broader significance, and received less attention, so it is worth looking at all of the issues resolved by the FCC’s order.
The Franken FMs, or “FM6” stations as the FCC referred to them, have been in existence for well over a decade (see, for instance, our articles here and here). The “Franken FM” moniker was adopted seemingly because the service provided by these stations was stitched together from the use of LPTV stations that were in many markets all but dead economically, to provide a radio service that, in some cases, was quite vibrant. Until 2021, the service from these stations was just a byproduct of analog TV’s use of an audio transmission standard compatible with FM radio on TV channel 6 spectrum, which is immediately adjacent to the bottom of the FM band. In other parts of the world, FM extends below 88.1 so most FM receivers can be tuned to 87.7, the frequency on which these LPTV stations send their audio signals. But when the July 2021 deadline came for LPTV stations to go fully digital, the analog FM audio was no longer part of their transmissions, so these stations had to come up with a hybrid system that transmitted their video signals (and the audio accompanying that video programming) in a digital format, but allowed the audio FM signals to also be transmitted in an analog format that FM radios could still receive. The FCC allowed a limited number of stations to provide this hybrid service in conjunction with their conversion to ATSC 3.0 TV transmissions after their digital conversion, but until the recent order, only on a special temporary authority (STA) basis with a number of restrictions. The recent order makes these station’s operations permanent, and lifts many of the restrictions.
The STAs under which these stations had operated limited their ability to make technical changes and limited the ability of their licensees to sell the stations. The FCC allowed facilities changes if the proposals did not change the LPTV station’s protected contour, and other changes based on a showing of an “engineering necessity” (e.g., the loss of a transmitter site) as long as the changes comply with the LPTV rules and don’t interfere with other licensed stations, including FM stations. Under the order, FM6 stations, being permanently grandfathered, can also be sold like any other station as part of the sale of the channel 6 LPTV station. The order adopted other operational rules for the FM6 service, including the requirement that these stations pay a fee for providing an “ancillary and supplementary’ service, supplementing their TV service. The licensees will pay a fee of 5% of their revenues from the FM6 service to the FCC each year.
In its closing paragraphs, the FCC briefly disposed of two other issues that likely have wider ramifications for the radio industry than did the order on FM6 stations. First, the FCC decided not to act on proposals by noncommercial radio advocates, including NPR, to eliminate rules that require that proposals for new or improved FM service on the noncommercial reserved band receive permission from for their new operations from nearby full-power TV stations operating on channel 6. In an analog world, as channel 6 is adjacent to the reserved band at the low end of the FM band, the operation of new NCE stations in that band could cause interference to the TV operation, which is why the rule exists. NCE advocates have argued that this is no longer an issue after the completion of the digital conversion. Some television operators have urged caution, fearing that interference could still occur to digital operations given the spectrum proximity of these services. The FCC decided to proceed with caution, and to delay any resolution of this issue until it could receive additional information from interested parties as to the real-world impact of the digital conversion on this interference potential. The FCC said that it will initiate a new proceeding to explore this issue at some point in the future. An NPR proposal to allow existing stations to modify their licenses to use 87.9 in certain circumstances will also be considered in this future proceeding.
The other issue resolved by the FCC was a proposal to use channel 6 spectrum, in parts of the country where it is not used for television services, to provide an expanded FM service. For more than 15 years, there have been proposals to use not just channel 6 but also channel 5 spectrum, for FM services before the FCC(see our articles here, here, and here). As these TV channels are used for radio in other parts of the world, radio advocates have long looked at these channels as opportunities to offer expanded FM service, including to increase LPFM and noncommercial services. But that channel is necessary for TV operations in certain spectrum-congested parts of the country, and the FCC believes that it could be needed for future TV service even in areas where it is not now in use. Moreover, the radios currently used in the US would not receive FM stations allocated within the channel 6 spectrum except for those at the very top end of that spectrum. Thus, the FCC’s decision to eliminate any short-term potential of significant increased FM service from the use of channel 6. As the FCC did not view using the same channels for different services in different parts of the country as a workable system, and sees channel 6 as continuing to be an important part of the TV band that may be needed for video services in area where that channel is not currently in use, it rejected the proposal to allow radio services on this TV channel.
With Franken FMs continuing to operate, and with a promised future review of the NCE interference issues, this order may well not be the last time that the FCC will be considering channel 6 issues. So, stay tuned for the next proceeding.
Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog