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FCC Opens FM6 NPRM, Seeking 'Final Resolution'

FM Dial
(Image credit: Getty)

Saying it wants to bring “final resolution” to the Franken FM issue, the Federal Communications Commission has opened a notice of proposed rulemaking.

The debate over whether to allow FM6 stations could have a much broader impact than expected, depending on how the FCC ultimately acts. Because among the questions it is asking are these two: whether to allow future FM6 operations beyond those that currently have STAs; and more dramatically, whether to license additional NCE FM radio stations on 82–88 MHz in areas where Channel 6 LPTV and full-power stations are not operating. The latter idea has been proposed by NPR.

FM6 stations are the low-power digital television stations whose audio can be heard on many radios at 87.75 MHz — just below the official FM broadcast band — and which are essentially operating as FM stations. Thirteen stations currently have special temporary authority to do so.

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel had indicated that the commission would take some action (opens in new tab) on the matter this month. But the FCC did not wait for that meeting, it has opened the NPRM asking for comments on whether it should allow FM6 as an ancillary or supplementary service under specified conditions.

It is also asking whether it should eliminate or revise the television Channel 6 distance separation rules for low-power FMs, noncommercial educational FMs, Class D (10 watt) FMs and FM translators that operate on reserved band FM Channels 201–220, which is 88.1 to 91.9 MHz.

Background
The commission thinks that nearly 30 FM6 stations existed prior to the digital TV transition. But many in the industry expected the question of Franken FMs to go away once LPTVs were required to go digital in the summer of 2021, because the digital portion of their signals could no longer be received by FM radios.

However, as has been documented on in a series of articles on TV Tech, FM6 stations have sought to maintain their service in the new digital TV age, arguing that they provide an important service.

As long ago as 2014, the FCC noted, Venture Technologies Group proposed to use an ATSC 1.0 digital television transmitter on Channel 6 and a separate analog radio transmitter tuned to 87.75 MHz to simultaneously operate a digital LPTV station on Channel 6 and an analog FM radio-type service. It asked the FCC to treat the analog FM audio transmission as an “ancillary or supplementary” service under the commission’s rules.

That year the commission took industry comments on the concept. A coalition of broadcasters supported it, while FM broadcasters, including National Public Radio and other noncommercial educational FM broadcasters, as well as full-power television stations licensed on Channel 6 opposed it, citing interference concerns. In 2019 the commission took another round of comments, again without taking final action.

But the LPTV digital transition was completed in July 2021. Shortly beforehand, Venture filed a request for STA to convert its Channel 6 TV station in San Jose, Calif., to ATSC 3.0 digital and to operate an ATSC 3.0 transmitter and a separate analog FM radio transmitter on 87.7 MHz in an analog format as an ancillary service. The Educational Media Foundation, which provides programming to the station, supported that request (opens in new tab).

The Media Bureau granted its STA (opens in new tab) subject to a number of conditions. The station must operate in ATSC 3.0, not 1.0; it cannot create interference; it must file regular written reports; the audio and video coverage must reach similar populations; and the station must provide at least one full-time stream of synchronized video and audio programming on the ATSC 3.0 portion of the spectrum. There are several other requirements as well.

Twelve more STAs have since been granted under the same stipulations.

NPRM
The FCC now is asking:

  • Whether FM6 operations serve the public interest and should be authorized to continue in any capacity.
  • If existing FM6 operations should be authorized as “ancillary or supplementary” services and, if so, be subject to a rule that contains provisions similar to those in the 13 current STAs.
  • Whether the FCC can or should limit FM6 operations to only those LPTV stations with active FM6 STAs right now.
  • Whether to adopt NPR’s proposal to license additional NCE FM radio stations on 82–88 MHz in areas where Channel 6 LPTV and full-power stations are not operating.
  • Whether to eliminate or revise the TV6 distance separation rules for LPFM, NCE, Class D (10 watt), and FM translator stations operating on reserved band FM Channels 201–220.

Those are the broad-brush questions. Among the many specific issues being raised in the FCC NPRM are these:

  • Is it an efficient use of spectrum to use a 6 MHz television channel to provide a 200 kHz aural service?
  • Could FM6 programming be delivered in a more spectrum-efficient way, e.g. as a digital audio-only stream on one of the LPTV’s multicast channels, through the internet or via traditional FM or LPFM licenses?
  • How is analog use of a digital channel “consistent with” the digital technology mandated by the FCC for the provision of advanced TV services?
  • Should the FCC limit LPTV stations providing FM6 operations from modifying their facilities?
  • Should it limit such stations from being transferred while FM6 operations are being conducted, to avoid license speculation?
  • Does the fact that stations are using ATSC 3.0 change the potential for analog FM6 to interfere with or disrupt the station’s digital TV service?
  • Should FM6 stations be held to the rules that require public inspection files, border frequency coordination and other aspects of Part 73?
  • If FM6s are allowed, should they be subject to a 5% fee, as required of certain digital TV ancillary or supplementary services?
  • If the FCC decides to limit FM6 only to stations that currently have STAs, should it “grandfather in” any LPTVs that have pending applications for CPs that conducted FM6 operations in the past?

Since 1985 the FCC required FM stations on the reserved band to protect Channel 6 stations. In the NPRM it noted that four years ago, in weighing tweaks to the LPFM rules, it had considered whether to change that requirement, the idea being that the current provisions “significantly overprotect” TV6 stations and could be reduced with little impact. But it didn’t act.

So now that “analog television is … truly a legacy service” and the industry has experience with respect to digital TV6, the FCC asks again about the continued need for TV6 interference protection rules, including the possible impact if FM6 operations are retained — “that is, if FM6 and LPFM and NCE FM stations are allowed to come into closer proximity if the TV6 protection rules are eliminated, would that increase concerns about interference from FM6 to LPFM/NCE FM stations — an important factor in our FM6 considerations?”

The deadlines to comment in MB Docket No. 03-185 have not yet been published.

You can read the full NPRM here.

This article originally appeared in Radio World.