Decoding The FCC’s New Translator Rules
For owners of FM translators – and the consultants like me who specialize in helping them – the FCC’s rules about determining whether or not a translator is causing interference have long been maddeningly fuzzy. For almost every other broadcast service, there’s a clear line: either a contour at a specific signal strength overlaps another station’s contour of a specific strength, or it doesn’t. But a translator that meets all the FCC’s paper rules about contour overlap still isn’t home free: it can be forced to lower power or even go off the air if “reception of a regularly used signal is impaired.”
With the influx of thousands of new translators in just a few years thanks to the “AM Revitalization” proceedings, that imprecise standard has been pushed to the limit lately.
What does “impaired” mean? What’s “regularly used?” There’s no clear standard – and so plenty of lawyers (and not a few consultants, too) have racked up lots of billable hours in the last few years trying to prove real-world listeners are suffering interference from translators – or that they’re not, depending on which side of the dispute is employing them. (Disclaimer: I’ve worked on several cases for both translator owners and full-power stations in recent years. Sometimes they’ve even been the same owner. This is a complicated business these days.)
So there was no small amount of relief when the FCC opened up a rulemaking proceeding to try to bring some order to the chaos and to relieve the pressure on its own staff, who had no desire to be referees in some of these increasingly testy disputes. (Station owners going door to door to try to extract new interference complaints or pressure listeners to drop their complaints? That’s really happened. So have drone flights over competitors’ towers to make sure their antennas are aimed the right way. It’s gotten weird out there.)
On May 9, the Commission will vote on an order that’s meant to sort out some of these messes and bring some clarity to both sides. The details could still change, but here are some of the key points. (More disclaimer: I’m a consultant, not a lawyer. Always talk to competent communications counsel before making any plans or taking any action based on advice like this.)
A new line at 45 dBu. Depending on the class of a full-power FM station, the FCC defines a “service contour” within which it can’t receive interference – 60 dBu (good for even a cheap indoor radio) for little class A stations and bigger class C/C0/C1/C2/C3 stations, 57 dBu for class B1 stations and 54 dBu for class B stations. But we know that in the real world, listeners still tune in to stations at weaker signal levels. Maybe they have good radios and outdoor antennas, maybe they’re in areas where terrain provides a boost, maybe they’re trying to pull in a very weak signal because it’s carrying programming they just can’t hear anywhere else. I’ve seen some full-power stations try to claim they have regular listeners in places where they’re predicted to deliver as little as 35 dBu, which is way down in the mud.
So we knew the FCC would find a lower signal level at which to draw a more firm line to define “interference.” Would it be 50 dBu? 48? Based on all the comments the FCC received when it opened the rulemaking proceeding, regulators took an average and landed on a number that was lower than many of us expected: 45 dBu, which gives even a class A station about a 30-mile radius in which it can easily contest interference from translators.
Within that new 45 dBu line, the FCC will presume interference complaints are valid; outside that line, the assumption is that they’re not. But even that will remain a little fuzzy – if a full-power station can make a special case, it will still be allowed to try to persuade the FCC it’s suffering interference that needs to be remediated.
No more “he said, she said.” One of the least savory parts of navigating interference complaints happens when those real-world listeners get involved. The FCC has tacitly allowed stations to solicit complaints through social media or on their websites, which often results in a pile of incredibly vague complaints. Where are you hearing the interference? “On my drive to work down Route 27” How often do you listen? “Sometimes” Can we come to your house and try to remediate the interference, as the FCC requires us to do? “Don’t come anywhere near me.”
The proposed new rules will make this easier. There’s a more standardized form in which the complaint must be filed. Listeners will have to provide more specific information about exactly where the interference is happening. And once the listener has provided their complaint, they’re done with the process; it’s all between the station, the translator and the FCC from there.
Who’s a listener? That’s been another source of contention. It’s been clear that a station employee can’t file a valid complaint, and station advertisers are off limits, too, because of their financial relationship. But what about listeners who are also donors to a noncommercial station, or who volunteer at station events? This proceeding clears that up – those listeners can indeed file complaints.
How many complaints is enough? Under current rules, it could take as little as a single complaint to force a translator to remediate interference. The FCC wants to change that, and in a pretty significant way. It’s proposing to require at least six interference complaints, with a sliding scale depending on how much population the complaining station covers. A million listeners total? You’ll need to gather at least 15 complaints, and the total caps at 65 complaints for stations in the very largest markets.
Pick a channel. ANY channel. Here’s the biggest win for translator operators: the new rules would allow them to move their signal to any available channel to alleviate interference. That’s a significant change from the current rules, which allow for minor changes up or down one, two or three channels (or to the “IF channels” 10.6 and 10.8 MHz away. And it means translators that are involved in interference disputes should be looking now at what those possible alternate channels might be, so they can get filings into the Commission as soon as the new rules take effect. That’s still a few months away, at best – the new rules have to be approved and then published in the Federal Register, so it will be July or later when we find out what happens when these new rules hit the road.