By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP
The FCC this week released its agenda for its October 27 open meeting. At that meeting the FCC will consider a number of issues of relevance to broadcasters, including enhanced white space use in the TV band and an expansion of the requirement for audio description of video programming. It also plans to adopt an order authorizing licensees of AM stations to voluntarily transition to all-digital AM operations. A draft order setting out the FCC’s decision and the rules that it intends to adopt for all digital AM operations was released yesterday. We wrote previously about this proceeding on all-digital AM as it has progressed through the FCC (see our articles here and here).
The draft order on all-digital AM contains a discussion as to whether the Commission should put limits on the ability of AM licensees to transition so as to not take away service from existing listeners who do not have digital AM radios. The conclusion set out in the draft order is that there should not be restrictions on the ability of licensees to convert to all-digital operations. The FCC noted that as long as there are a substantial number of listeners without digital AM receivers, some AM licensees will have an economic incentive to continue to broadcast an analog signal. Thus, these analog listeners will not be left without service. The FCC also noted that its recent order abolishing the prohibition on radio stations duplicating the programming of commonly-owned stations serving the same area (see our articles here and here) would allow one owner to put the same programming on two AMs in the same area – one providing a digital program stream while the other continued analog operations. Thus, the FCC’s tentative decision is that there is no need to restrain stations from making the conversion.
There was some fear of interference to other AM stations addressed in the draft order. The FCC’s tentative conclusion is that there appears to be little concern that all-digital AM will have substantially greater interference characteristics than does analog AM radio. In fact, as the primary energy from the all-digital broadcast is concentrated on the center of the AM carrier (as opposed to being on side-bands that encroach on adjacent channels in the currently-authorized hybrid mode), interference to adjacent channel stations may well be reduced by all-digital operations. If interference does occur, the FCC will look to stations to resolve such interference between themselves, with FCC filings only required where there is a reduction in the power of the primary sidebands where the audio programming is transmitted. Only where the parties cannot voluntarily work out interference issues will the FCC get involved in mediating these disputes.
Before converting to all-digital operations, or making changes in such operations, the FCC will require that a licensee notify the FCC on Form 335, providing the following information:
- the type of notification (all-digital notification, increase in nominal power, reduction in nominal power, transition from core-only to enhanced, transition from enhanced to core-only, reversion from all-digital to hybrid or analog operation);
- the date that new or modified all-digital operation will commence or has ceased;
- a certification that the all-digital operations will conform to the relevant nominal power and spectral emissions limits;
- the nominal power of the all-digital station;
- a certification that the all-digital station complies with all EAS requirements; and
- if a notification of commencement of new all-digital service or a nominal power change, whether the station is operating in core-only or enhanced mode.
The FCC will provide a public notice of proposed all-digital operations. No changes can be made for 30 days following that public notice to allow other AM stations to take measurements of the current interference that they receive from the station planning to convert to all-digital operations so that these other stations can judge if the all-digital operations create more interference. The licensee of the station planning to convert to all-digital operations must give the public over-the-air notice of its plans to convert during this 30-day notice period.
The draft order also sets out technical rules for all-digital operations. It allows AM digital operations both day and night, dismissing concerns that nighttime skywave interference could be more severe with digital operations. It also requires that all-digital stations participate in EAS alerts and work with stations that monitor the all-digital facilities to ensure that the receiving stations can receive the all-digital alerts or that they change the stations that they monitor.
The draft order may be subject to revisions between now and the October 27 meeting. Assuming that no substantial changes are made, this meeting may well launch the most substantial attempt by the FCC to revitalize the AM band by actually encouraging AM broadcasting. Watch for further developments in the coming weeks.
David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).
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