FCC accepts congressional changes to low-power plan

Wednesday, April 11, 2001
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell.

The Federal Communications Commission recently modified its rules for its new class of low-power FM radio stations to comply with a new federal law passed in the wee hours of the last session of Congress.

With the revisions, successful applicants for the low-power stations must adhere to traditional interference protection standards and must not have engaged in the unlicensed operation of a radio station.

“This action will enable us to move ahead and grant construction permits to eligible LPFM applicants who meet the standard for protecting third adjacencies, the same level of interference protection currently required for full power stations,” said Chairman Michael Powell in a statement.

Meanwhile, the commission also announced that it would accept applications for the low-power stations from radio enthusiasts in more than 20 states and U.S. territories.

The FCC began carving out spaces on the broadcast spectrum last year in the hope that a new class of stations would improve the diversity of voices on the airwaves. The new licenses would allow noncommercial stations to operate between 50 to 100 watts of power or under 10 watts of power.

To date, the FCC has accepted more than 1,300 applications from 20 states. For the next filing window, planned from June 11-15, the agency will accept applications from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Guam, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

Congress derailed the plan last December by restoring broadcast safeguards of spacing stations at least two radio channels apart on the dial, known as third-adjacent channel protection. The Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, passed as a rider to an appropriations bill, also empowered Congress to determine safeguards by which low-power stations could get licenses.

The act also required the FCC to modify its rules to “prohibit any applicant from obtaining a low-power FM license if the applicant has engaged in any manner in the unlicensed operation of any station in violation of FCC rules.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently offered the Low Power Radio Act of 2001 to revert the law back to the original FCC plan. But observers say the bill has little chance of passage.

By law, the FCC had to codify the new law into its rules and regulations. Powell said the agency has begun independent testing to determine the impact of low-power stations that don’t operate under current channel protections.

“As these stations are built out, we will work with the new LPFM licensees and broadcasters to ensure the continued integrity of existing broadcast services, while providing new opportunities for community based programming,” he said.

Commissioner Harold Furchgott-Roth approved the revisions but said the FCC should have embarked on a fresh rulemaking process.

“The urgency in establishing the LPFM service cannot, and does not, overcome the need to follow the rulemaking requirements,” Furchgott-Roth said in a statement. “In any instance, a public dialogue and debate on the relevant provisions would have helped elucidate the scope and substance of the law.”

He added that such action would have created a more harmonious low-power radio service.

But low-power advocates, such as Cheryl Leanza of the Media Access Project, say there’s been enough testing and debate over the issue. The FCC is ready to open the new stations now, she and others say.

“Now that they’ve implemented the law, they are going to feel free to move forward,” Leanza said in a telephone interview. “They just wanted to have all of their ducks in a row.”

The original FCC plan, which would have relaxed some of the channel restrictions, drew much opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio and the like. But an NAB spokesman said the groups didn’t oppose low-power radio as long as the stations adhered to traditional protections.

“The important thing, from our perspective, is the preservation of the channel spacing rules that have been in place for something like 30 years,” said Dennis Wharton. “We have no problem with LPFM going forward as long as listeners were assured of the protections they’ve always had.”

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