FM Translators for AM stations – the good and not so good

The FCC hopes to help AM broadcasters by giving them a first shot at getting FM Translators by opening an “AM only” application window.  This is part of the new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking MB Docket 13-249.

It is laudible that the FCC, led by Commissioner Pai is moving forward with an attempt to help AM.  Unfortunately, typical of a government agency, the FCC sees a problem and rushes to a “fix” before analyzing it.  Make no mistake, an FM Translator window will be a big help for AM stations, but there are several other aspects that should be reviewed before opening a window:

1)  One of the pernicious aspects of an AM station getting a translator, is that the translator and the AM station often have widely differing sizes of service area.  The AM station, for example might have a 20 mile radius of its 2 mV/m contour, but the translator only goes 7 miles.  The station staff promotes the anemic translator because it has a nice sounding signal, but it covers only 12% of the area of the AM station.  This is a prescription for failure because in many cases the translator cannot cover enough of the market to be viable.

The FCC’s proposal of “one to a customer” rules are foolhardy.  AM Stations should have as many translators as needed to fill in their 2 mV/m contour, particularly if there are no competing applicants.  When there are multiple AM stations who apply for FM translators in a market, an auction penalty can be assessed against an AM licensee who already has an FM translator, auction win or construction permit. Applicants who are assessed such a penalty would need to have some level of certainty to protect them from the predatory practices described in section 4 below.  Failure to let AM stations have a meaningful translator presence will drive another nail in the AM coffin.  This kind of limitation by regulation  only serves to postpone an AM station’s death rattle.

A fill-in FM translator authorization for an AM station should permit additional FM on channel translator-boosters.  An AM station with a large service area should be able to apply for additional co-channel translators within the AM service area under the demand procedures used for FM Boosters.  The synchronous booster translators would all be required to remain within the “fill in translator” restrictions of the AM station, but not require overlap of the translator 60 dbu contours.  This would provide the most spectrum efficient way to deliver an effective FM presence for AM stations.

Presently FM Translator-boosters cannot exist because Section 74.1204 prohibits them, even though there is no technical impediment to their use.

2)  There should be no impediment to having a third party own a FM translator that repeats an AM station.  In the case that an AM station licensee applies in the window and another party also applies for a conflicting translator, and the other party is not the licensee of its primary AM station, then the AM licensee’s application would be granted, and the competing application would be held in abeyance.  In the case that the AM licensee does not construct the translator within the three year period, then the conflicting application would be processed.

Many AM stations do not have the capital to construct a translator, but could readily pay monthly rent or rent-to-own.  The AM translator window should be organized so that the new translators are locked to be a fill-in translator for SOME AM station, either permanently or for a period, such as 5 years after licensing.

FM translators processed within the AM window should be able to change the primary station to another AM station in the future.  A good example of a need for this would be when a group owner decides to convert one of his AM stations to full digital (non hybrid) operation.  The group owner may wish to shift  FM translator(s) with a primary AM from one its other AM stations another.  Alternatively, if an AM station fails, the licensee should be able to sell its FM translator to another AM station, or to a third party that will provide translator services to an AM station, as long as the primary station remains AM.

3)  The restriction that AM fill in FM translators must have their 1 mV/m contours contained entirely within the primary AM 2.0 mV/m needs to change!  The AM protected contour is the 0.5 mV/m but translators are currently limited to the 2.0 mV/m – 12 decibels above the AM licensed service contour.   FM HD-2 (or 3 or 4) fill in FM translators are required to contain their 1 mV/m contours within the primary FM service contour (1 mV/m for most stations, but 0.5 mV/m for class B and 0.7 mV/m for class B1).  This is so, even though HD-2 signals are usually not receivable by most users beyond the 1.5 or 25 mV/m contours.  The only reason to restrict AM fill in translator coverage so severely is to maintain the hegemony of the full power FM stations in the market.
AM stations often have a restrictive directional antenna which makes the service area irregular in shape which could, under the present rule preclude putting an omnidirectional FM translator on the AM station’s own tower.  Available sites for FM translators often make it difficult to keep the 60 dbu contour within the AM 2.0 mV/m contour.  A more reasonable rule:  FM translator antenna must be located within the station 2 mV/m and the translator 60 dbu must not extend beyond the AM 0.5 mV/m contour, and at least 87% (or some other reasonable percentage) of the area of the translator 1 mV/m contour must be contained within the AM 2.0 mV/m.  This will reduce the need for expensive FM directional antennas when the tower is located toward the edge of the AM coverage area or when the directional antenna nulls are severe.  This will also allow the use of existing towers for FM translators in areas where new towers are difficult to build due to local regulations.

4)   There are a number of Broadcasting groups who are filing predatory petitions to deny against translators claiming that there are distant listeners to a co-channel or first adjacent channel full service FM station or previously licensed translator.  These practices make it impossible for an AM station to finance the construction of FM translators because a petition to deny against the license or complaint received at any time could cause the translator to be unable to operate.  Additionally, AM stations need relief now, not at some distant date in the future.  A frivolous Petition or complaint could spell years of delay, and disaster for an AM station.
An actual case of this is is an AM station which received a construction permit for a translator to repeat the AM station.  The station purchased equipment and leased tower space for the antenna on a commercial tower.  A distant FM station licensee in another market filed an untimely filed petition to deny shortly before the antenna was delivered.  It has now been over four months, and the lawyer bills and tower rent keeps running with no relief for the AM station in sight.
The Commission should clarify that section 74.1204(f) challenges or complaints under section 74.1203 where the alleged “listener(s)” are beyond a some specified F(50,50) contour of the complaining station have a specific burden of proving that the listeners are bona-fide.  I would suggest “listeners” outside the complaining station’s  50 or 45 dbuV being subject to a high standard of proof.
In all cases, it is essential that NOTHING of value be provided in consideration of filing a complaint.  “Listeners” have reported that they received concert tickets and “T shirts” when they filled out the FM Station’s forms.
Additionally, the number of effected listeners should be more than some minimum number such as 50 listeners or 0.1% of the population within the complaining station’s 60 dbuV contour(whichever is higher).  There are pending numerous petitions claiming a single effected listener.

Of course, the logical approach would be to simply limit protection of full power FM stations to their “protected contour”, but that would be too simple.

AM stations need to have some level of assurance that a translator designed according the the FCC rules will actually be able to be used, otherwise the financing is impossible.