Big Low Power FM Win!

Back in 2007, the FCC issued an Order to try to address some of the problems impacting the low-power FM (LPFM) service. You can find out more about how amazing LPFM is, and why Congress needs to pass legislation to remove the artificial restrictions on how many LPFM stations we can have, here on the Prometheus Radio website.

Briefly, LPFMs are very small, very local non-commercial stations that operate at 100-watts or less. The FCC authorized the service in 2000, relaxing the “third adjacent channel” (A radio station must be 3 jumps away from the next radio station) rule to permit several thousand LPFM’s to operate without interfering with full power station. The NAB persuaded Congress to reverse this determination with the ironically named Radio Broadcaster Preservation Act of 2000. That act prohibited the FCC from relaxing or waiving the 3rd adjacent channel spacing requirement.

A few years ago, it became clear that the several hundred LPFMs permitted under the act were in danger of being crowded out by full power stations. Because of what appeared to be an unrelated decision to streamline the process by which full power FM stations can change their market designation. As a result, an LPFM could suddenly find itself impermissibly close to a full power station and need to shut down. Or it might start experiencing interference and get drowned out. The Commission therefore issued an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which provided some relief by making it easier for LPFMs to relocate on the 2nd adjacent channel, thus avoiding Congress’ mandate that the FCC not reduce or waive the separation distance required on the 3rd adjacent channel. This is not nearly as silly as it sounds, as the process involves a fact-based determination on whether there is actually any interference to any full power as a result of the move. Given how interference works, it is very possible to fit a LPFM into space on the 2nd adjacent without causing interference. Spacing is based on averages to make processing applications easier. Actual engineering can determine how to place a low-power tower to avoid interference. Mind, this would be easier to do if Congress hadn’t absolutely prohibited any waiver of 3rd adjacent spacing. But they did. Happily, however, Congress did not prohibit any waiver of 2nd channel adjacent.

The NAB promptly appealed, arguing that the FCC had no authority to alter first,second or third adjacent as a result of the 2000 Act. This, in turn, stalled the conclusion of the Rulemaking, since why finish a rulemaking if you don’t even know whether or not you have authority?

Today, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s decision. It rejected the NAB’s argument based on the plain language of the statute and found that the FCC had rationally justified its decision.

This is extremely good news for LPFM, and for those communities lucky enough to have them. As acting Chairman Copps noted in a statement issued today after the ruling, the FCC is now free to move quickly to finish the pending rulemaking. And, of course, Congress should move just as quickly to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, so that hundreds of new communities can enjoy the diverse voices of low-power FM.

My former colleagues at MAP — especially Parul Desai who did the lion’s share of work on this issue — deserve a huge shout out for this win. I should also mention that it was not a Democratic FCC, but Kevin Martin who brought the 2007 Order to a vote — and then voted with the Democrats against both his fellow Republicans to get the needed 3 votes to clear the Commission.

Stay tuned . . . .

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