Nearly two years to the date after the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the “Revitalization of the AM Radio Service,” the FCC has released the initial Report and Order in this proceeding. The decision is far-reaching: (i) the FCC adopted procedures for AM stations to acquire and relocate FM translators to retransmit AM stations; (ii) adopted several rule changes to relax AM coverage requirements and enhance station signal changes; (iii) issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking requesting comment on a number of proposals to make additional changes to the AM rules; and (iv) issued a Notice of Inquiry proposing questions regarding the AM Expanded Band and a potential relaxation of the AM main studio rules. Comments on the proposals in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry will be due 60 days after the items are published in the Federal Register and reply comments are due 90 days after Federal Register publication. We will advise you when these dates become fixed upon publication.
The actions taken and proposed by the Commission’s Order, NPRM, and NOI are complex, and we encourage you to contact our office for specific discussions about how these changes and proposals affect your particular situation. A brief summary of each item is provided below.
AM Revitalization Order
In its Order, the FCC adopted the following six proposals:
- AM windows for FM translators. The FCC’s decision is intended to provide immediate assistance to many AM stations by establishing procedures for AM stations to identify, relocate, and utilize FM translators in a streamlined manner. Specifically, the Commission adopted two approaches to expand the use of FM translators by AM stations. In the first phase, the FCC will waive its translator modification rules to allow, on a first come – first served basis, each AM station to acquire a single FM translator authorization issued anywhere within 250 miles of the AM station, to relocate that translator to the AM station’s market, and to operate that translator on any non-reserved band FM channel in the AM station’s market, subject to coverage and interference rules.
The FCC has adopted certain relaxed guidelines and eligibility standards for parties submitting applications during the filing windows in an effort to facilitate access to enhanced service by AM stations in their market. The initial six-month filing window is scheduled to open during the first quarter of 2016 and will be available only for Class C and Class D AM stations; after the FCC has processed applications filed in the first window, a second three-month modification window will be opened for FM translator proposals involving any class of AM station that did not file in the initial window. Only one application may be filed for each individual AM station.An application can be submitted by an AM licensee if it is the licensee of the FM translator station, is the proposed assignee or transferee of the targeted FM translator station, or has entered into a rebroadcasting agreement with the FM translator licensee or permittee. Where the translator authorization is a permit for an unbuilt station due to expire in 2016, the FCC will entertain favorably a request for waiver of the original construction deadline if accompanied by a commitment of prompt construction and commencement of operation from the new location.
The rules for applications to modify the facilities of an FM translator authorized to operate on a non-reserved band FM channel (92.1 – 107.9 MHz) to permit the station to be relocated up to 250 miles from its authorized site. AM licensees may apply to move the translator and specify any non-reserved band channel that works in the area of the AM station, even if that frequency is different from the current authorized channel of the FM translator. However, the proposal must still satisfy the AM/FM translator “fill-in” service restrictions: the proposed 1 mV/m contour of the FM translator station must be contained within the lesser of the AM station’s 2 mV/m daytime contour or within a 25 mile radius from the AM transmitter site. Any eligible translator relying on the FCC’s blanket waiver and application process must continue to rebroadcast the AM station for four years, commencing with the initiation of service at the new location.
After the translator modification windows have closed, the FCC will conduct two auctions for new translator stations beginning in 2017. These auctions will be open only to AM stations that did not file an application in the earlier modification filing windows. The first auction will be open to Class C and Class D AM stations, and the second auction will be available to all AM stations which have not participated in any of the earlier proceedings. A single AM station may file in either one modification window or in one auction, but not both. Because this limitation is tied directly to AM stations, and not to AM station owners, a sale of an AM station will not create a subsequent right for the buyer to file in one of the translator auctions when the prior owner filed in a modification window. Translator stations acquired through the auction windows will be permanently linked to the AM primary station of the translator.
- Daytime Community Coverage. Currently, the FCC’s rules require a commercial AM radio station to provide daytime coverage to its entire community of license, although it is the policy of FCC staff to consider a showing of “substantial compliance” if a station will encompass 80% of the community of license’s area or population within the station’s 5 mV/m contour. The FCC’s Order relaxes the daytime community coverage requirements with new rules for existing, licensed AM facilities only, to allow the modification of daytime community coverage in circumstances where the station relocates or its community of license has expanded significantly. Specifically, the FCC will now require that the daytime 5 mV/m contour encompass either 50% of the area, or 50% of the population of the principal community to be served. Any proposal that would reduce the area or population coverage within the first four years of licensed operation would be subject to potential dismissal in the absence of a showing of good cause.
- Nighttime Community Coverage. The FCC’s rules currently require that non-Class D AM broadcasters maintain a signal at night sufficient to cause 80% of the area or population of the broadcaster’s principal community to be encompassed by the nighttime 5 mV/m contour or the nighttime interference-free contour of the station, whichever is higher. Most AM broadcasters continue to serve the vast majority of their communities of license at night even though the Commission’s Rules, in many cases, mandate reduced maximum broadcast power levels. The Order eliminates the nighttime community coverage requirement for existing licensed AM stations. In addition, station modifications going forward will require that applicants for new AM stations and those AM stations seeking to change their communities of license to cover either 50% of the population or 50% of the area of the communities of license with a nighttime 5 mV/m signal or a nighttime interference-free contour, whichever value is higher.
- Elimination of the FCC’s AM “Ratchet Rule.” The FCC’s Order eliminated the so-called AM “Ratchet Rule,” which effectively required Class A and B radio stations seeking to “ratchet back” their signal to demonstrate that the change would result in an overall reduction in skywave interference to other AM stations. The FCC eliminated the rule finding that it discourages AM station improvements because it often required stations to modify their facilities to reduce power to comply with the rule.
- Modulation Dependent Carrier Level Control (MDCL) Technologies. Beginning in 2011, AM stations have been allowed to request waivers to use MDCL technologies, which vary either the carrier or the carrier and sideband power levels, allowing stations to reduce transmitter power consumption while maintaining station audio quality and signal coverage. In order to reduce the burden on AM licensees, stations going forward will no longer have to file a waiver request, and instead will be able to use MDCL technologies as long as they notify the Commission via electronic filing on Form 349 “AM Station MDCL Notification,” within ten days after their first use of MDCL technologies.
- Modification of AM Antenna Efficiency Standards. The FCC’s antenna efficiency standards require a certain height antenna and length of ground radials for a station at a given frequency, which can cause difficulties in finding compliant sites for towers and ground systems. The Order reduces the current AM antenna efficiency standards by 25%.
Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
In the FNPRM, the FCC seeks comment from parties on additional proposals to potentially further enhance the viability of AM stations. The Order specifically asks questions about the following matters, among others:
- Whether all Class A AM stations, day or night, should be protected from co-channel stations; whether all Class A AM stations should continue to be protected by first adjacent channels, both day and night; and whether the critical hours protection of Class A AM stations should be eliminated entirely. The Commission has tentatively concluded that Class A stations should be protected, both day and night, to their 0.1 mV/m groundwave contour from co-channel stations, to their 0.5 mV/m groundwave contour from first-adjacent stations (as is now the case), and that protection of Class A stations during critical hours should be eliminated.
- Whether the FCC should change or eliminate its 1991 nighttime skywave interference rules and return to predicting the nighttime interference-free coverage area using only the interference contributions from co-channel stations and the 50 percent exclusion method.
- Whether the FCC should change its rules regarding the daytime protected contours of Class B, C, and D AM stations.
- Whether the FCC should revise its rules for locating cross-serve “fill in” translators, including a change that would permit FM translators for AM stations to operate such that the 1 mV/m signal for the translator is contained within the greater of the 2 mV/m contour of the AM station or a 25 mile radius centered at the AM transmitter site, provided that the 1 mV/m contour of the translator does not extend beyond a 40 mile radius from the AM transmitter site.
- Whether the FCC should modify its partial proof of performance requirements.
- Whether the FCC should revise its rules for Method of Moment Proofs for AM station directional antennas.
- Whether stations should be required to surrender dual and expanded band authorizations.
Notice of Inquiry
In the Notice of Inquiry, the FCC poses questions about the future use of the AM Expanded Band. The FCC seeks comments on whether opening the Expanded Band to further development would be beneficial to revitalization of the AM service, including whether the opening the Expanded Band should be opened to new stations, the types of stations that should be permitted to operate in the Expanded Band, and what technical parameters for Expanded Band station operation should be adopted.
The Notice of Inquiry is also seeking comment regarding whether, and how, to modify the AM main studio rule. The Commission raises many questions regarding ways to relax the current rule given the advances in technology to enable members of the community to contact station personnel without having to physically visit the main studio. The Commission asks additional questions pertaining to waivers of the main studio rule on a case-by-case basis, co-location, and the requirement that each station maintain a separate main studio, among other matters.
The Order, Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry in the Revitalization of the AM Radio Service proceeding raise many significant questions for AM licensees and others seeking to improve the AM service. Of paramount importance is the initial cross-service FM translator modification window for use by Class C and Class D AM primary stations, as these applications will be processed on a first come – first served basis. We recommend that you contact your regular attorney in our office to discuss the opportunities and the specific requirements applicable to your AM stations in advance of any filing windows, and to review and submit comments about the proposed further relaxation of the existing AM rules.