FCC closes public comment on low-power radio

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Federal Communications Commission officials have closed public comment on low-power radio, clearing the first major hurdle in an effort to create a new broadcast-licensing program.

But officials now have to wade through more than 3,200 statements, replies and studies filed by broadcast experts and radio enthusiasts over the past year.

“The fact that we have 3,000 to 4,000 replies filed shows there has been extraordinary interest in low-power radio,” FCC spokesman David Fiske said. “Students, non-profit organizations, ethnic groups and music groups, in addition to the normal broadcasting groups, have filed comments.”

Public comment ended Nov. 15, but reviewing the comments could stretch on for months, Fiske said.

“What the FCC has to do is look at the hard engineering,” he said. “When will this be done? That's hard to say. It depends on how long it takes to weigh in on the issues and study the public comments and come up with conclusions and recommendations.”

The FCC opened the low-power-radio issue to public comment last January after it voted 4-1 to consider proposals to create thousands of new, licensed low-power FM radio stations from 1 watt to 1,000 watts. Approval of such stations would reverse a roughly 20-year-old ban against such licenses.

Low-power broadcasters, most of whom operate without a license, contend that they have a First Amendment right to the airwaves, particularly when larger stations don't offer diverse voices.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most licensed broadcasters in this country, maintain that the right to broadcast is a limited one because of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies. Without licenses, they contend, there would be chaos.

But the current FCC licensing scheme, some say, has left the airwaves open only to those who can afford to pay. While the FCC once offered low-power licenses, the agency dropped them in 1978 under pressure from the NAB and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which claimed the low-power stations caused interference with their members.

Current FCC regulations allow for some unlicensed stations, but the agency doesn't even grant licenses until a station has at least 100 watts of power.

Among the statements received by the FCC was one from activist Susan Trescott-Ness who submitted a petition listing the signatures of more than 250 mayors and city council members from Michigan who support low-power radio.

“We doubt the broadcast industry has been able to produce even 100 people across the entire country not associated with the industry who oppose LPFM,” wrote Trescott-Ness on behalf of the Michigan Music is World Class Campaign.

She added that the FCC is obligated to institute low-power service because of virtually unanimous public demand.

“How can it be in the public interest to deny what just about every American citizen apparently desires?” Trescott-Ness wrote. “In all honesty, it was difficult to find people who would not sign (other than high-level elected officials who are, perhaps, under the influence of an excessively powerful broadcast lobby).”

Officials with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting conceded in statements filed with the FCC that there is “a pent-up demand for radio frequencies that the Commission is right to take seriously and to seek to accommodate.”

But CPB officials warned that “satisfying this demand for frequencies is not the same thing as satisfying the public's need for a robust and well-administered local radio service.”

The CPB claims, along with the NAB, that a low-power plan would force hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new broadcast stations to a limited spectrum. They also say that approval of the proposal could hinder new technology, specifically the “In Band On Channel” system or IBOC, a development that would allow the simultaneous broadcast of analog and digital signals until all radio stations can convert to just digital broadcasts.

Public broadcasting officials noted that a federal court, in an unrelated ruling concerning personal attack and political editorial rules, said the FCC bears the burden of explaining why any new proposal will serve the public interest.

“The commission must show how the technical realities of radio in general, and the service characteristics of noncommercial radio in particular, have so changed in the last few years that LPFM would now be in the public interest,” the officials wrote. “The commission has not and cannot meet this burden on this record.”