NPR's war on Low Power FM: the laws of physics vs. politics

Apr 29, 2008 2:52 am
From Matthew Lasar in Ars Technica:
National Public Radio continues to move aggressively against Federal Communications Commission proposals that would, if not allow nonprofits to build more Low Power FM stations (LPFM), at least let existing ones survive the intrusion of new full power neighbors. NPR is quite plain about the matter in its FCC filings: it stands opposed to the Low Power exceptions, even though they might help keep FM offerings diverse. NPR charges that the FCC is putting feel-good policies ahead of the laws of physics.

"The laws of physics have not changed, and a system of full power broadcast stations serves many more listeners with less interference compared to low power broadcasting," NPR told the FCC this month. "While LPFM stations may advance the interests of localism and diversity, the Commission cannot assume that LPFM is inherently
better than full power service."

NPR opposes proposals to strengthen rules allowing LPFMs to obtain channel interference waivers when an "encroaching" full power station arrives on the scene. And the broadcaster decidedly dislikes measures that would require new full power signals to offer technical and even financial help to an LPFM that they've suddenly squatted on (or squatted next to).

This is a serious issue, because over the last decade the NPR service has expanded from 635 to 800 affiliated stations. Public radio's stance on this puts it at odds with practically every media reform group in the country. But first, let's recap the history of this bitter struggle, which goes back almost a decade.

After years of highly-publicized battles between pirate radio stations and the FCC, agency Chair William Kennard's Commission in 2000 set up some rules to establish two classes of LFPMs: an LP100 class with a maximum of 100 watts of power and an LP10 class with a limit of ten watts. License applicants for this new service had to honor various limits: nonprofit status and a "second adjacent" rule which meant that an LPFM could not set itself up within two channel notches of a full power station.

The FCC established that restraint in defiance of National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters. Both entities demanded that a three notch No Man's Land be thrown up around a full power signal. NPR pursued this goal with particular vigor, going so far as to suggest that the FCC disregarded laboratory tests that showed that LPFM stations without third adjacent restrictions would interfere with its member stations. Nonetheless, the agency stood these accusations down. It concluded that "imposition of a third-adjacent channel separation requirement would restrict unnecessarily the number of LPFM stations that could be authorized."

So the big guys raised hell and asked Congress to stomp the FCC's 2000 Order. Capitol Hill complied with a rider to a District of Columbia appropriations bill that instructed the FCC to put that third adjacent rule in there, despite the FCC's own conclusions.

This was a big setback for LPFM, because it meant that significantly fewer such stations could be licensed in more densely-populated areas. As the FCC later conceded, various "otherwise technically grantable applications" became "short spaced," prompting "the eventual dismissal of those applications." The agency subsequently canceled 17 licenses and almost 100 construction permits "for failure of the holder to satisfy certain procedural and/or technical requirements."

The DC Congressional rider did contain one silver lining. It authorized the FCC to commission an engineering study on the third adjacent problem, which the government did. The wheels of agency process moved slowly, but they moved. A little over two years later the Mitre Corporation submitted a report on the second/third adjacent problem, from which the FCC once again drew the conclusion that the third adjacent rule was not necessary.

Then, on December 11th of last year, the FCC enacted an Order and Proposed Rulemaking asking Congress to permit it to re-establish that second adjacent guideline. Mike Doyle (D-PA) in the House has sponsored such a bill, as has Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in the Senate.

The Commission's December 11th Order also asked for comment on other proposals to help keep afloat the estimated 809 LPFMs broadcasting in the United States. These include more firmly establishing procedures for second adjacent waivers. At present, if a new full power station shows up too close to an LPFM, agency practice has been to consider a waiver if the smaller signal suddenly finds itself afoul of the second adjacent limit. The FCC now wants to turn that occasional practice into a rule, but it also wants guidance on under what circumstances it should grant such leeway. And the Commission wants public wisdom on whether its waiver procedures should be expanded to first and even co-adjacent situations.

Second (and NPR truly hates this idea), the FCC wants to know if the "encroaching" full-service station should be required to offer technical assistance and even financial help to an LPFM that can demonstrate full power interference. This might include paying for filtering technology and other interference aides. And the agency thinks that a full power station should give an LPFM advance notice if the former anticipates interference with the latter.

"It should also be required to cooperate in good faith with the LPFM station in developing the best technical approach," the Commission contends, "including a possible LPFM site relocation, to ameliorate the interference and/or displacement impact of its proposal." In addition, the FCC proposes to raise standards for the kinds of LPFMs that get this sort of help, and seems to be leaning towards codifying these new policies only for stations that provide eight hours of local programming on a daily basis.

Finally, the FCC proposes to use contouring methodology to license new LPFM stations. Contour measurement is a more flexible way of assessing the possible interference of a broadcast signal. It takes into account mountainous and watery areas, therefore offering station applicants a wider range of "new licensing opportunities," as the FCC puts it.

On April 7, a medium-sized platoon of public interest groups and radio stations filed a 23-page statement on behalf of these proposals. They included the usual suspects: Prometheus Radio, Free Press, Benton, Future of Music, and Reclaim the Media, plus quite a few parties you don't come across very often, such as the Forest Hills School District of Cincinnati, Ohio. These 46 groups enthusiastically endorsed the FCC's suggestions.

"Low power radio stations are governed and operated by community based organizations with limited resources," they wrote. "It is only fair, then, that full-power stations that choose to move into the low power radio's community must provide technical and financial assistance to assist the low power station in resolving interference or in its move to a new channel."

In addition, the filing took on the delicate issue of FM translators, which NPR affiliated stations rely on heavily to expand their audience reach. Prometheus wants to limit the number of translators. No entity, Prometheus et al says, should be able to own more than ten translators in the biggest 303 Arbitron measured markets "on a basis that is primary to an LPFM station that pledges to provide local originated programming." In addition, LPFMs should not be able to convert to translators.

Needless to say, NPR sees these matters very differently, and was not afraid to be blunt about its perspective in its filing, submitted the same day as Prometheus. When Congress created the Low Power FM service, NPR's comment argues, it intended these stations to broadcast "where full power stations could not." Thus the Commissio
n should understand LPFM stations as "secondary to full power stations," NPR writes.

From this point of departure, practically everything that the FCC recommended in its December 2007 Order becomes illegitimate in NPR's eyes, ignoring "longstanding policy determination that full power service is the most efficient use of broadcast spectrum." If an LPFM wants a second adjacent waiver, it must first "resolve all actual interference complaints," NPR insists, and prove that "other factors" have not caused the problem. But it should get no help from the encroaching full power station in question: "The Commission has no place demanding that one NCE [Non-Commercial Educational] station reallocate its scarce resources to another, unrelated one, no matter how deserving the Commission believes the latter to be."

And as for notifying an LPFM of impending signal interference, NPR says that's not an All Things Considered broadcasters' job. "If the Commission perceives a special need to alert LPFM stations to potentially significant Commission actions or provide other accommodation, the Commission itself should take on those tasks." In a more recent filing, submitted to the FCC on April 21, NPR also opposed the ten translator limit.

In a sense, NPR has traveled full circle on this matter. In 2000 it protested imagined signal interference from LPFMs. Now it insists that real interference from its affiliates' signals should be someone else's problem.

In its FCC comments, National Public Radio claims that it "continues to support the LPFM service and the Commission's efforts to ensure that it remain true to its original ideal." But a detailed examination of public radio's stance on LPFM will lead some to a different impression. "To the extent the Commission is motivated by the desire to prevent the loss of LPFM stations," NPR writes in the same statement, "we also regret the community's loss of a valued public service, but risk is inherent in the secondary nature of the LPFM service."

Perhaps, then, NPR sees LPFM as a lesser species that, with time, will be driven to deserved extinction. That is, if the Federal Communications Commission does not enact rules that thwart the survival of the fittest.
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