FCC Offers Low-Power FM Stations

In January 1999, the FCC proposed relaxing restrictions on LPFMs, a move opposed by major telecom lobbying groups. The FCC acted in response to approximately 13,000 inquiries in 1998 “from individuals and groups expressing interest in starting [LPFM] stations.” Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters claimed that the new LP signals will interfere with the signals of existing stations and impede the transition to digital radio.

The New York Times
Friday, January 29, 1999
Stephen Labaton
The Federal Government proposed new rules today to permit hundreds, if not thousands, of small broadcasters to run inexpensive, low-power FM radio stations.Industry experts and Washington officials said that the proposal would provide new platforms for unheralded voices -- everything from educational institutions and churches to municipalities, independent musicians and dissident political groups that in recent months have joined forces to petition the Government for access to the airwaves.
The proposed rules, placed for public comment today by the Federal Communications Commission, contemplate relaxing the regulations to enable new broadcasters to transmit in areas from 2 miles to 18 miles in diameter, far smaller than the territory reached by most commercial radio stations but roughly the same range as many college stations.
It comes as consolidation in broadcasting, a byproduct of the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1996, has sharply reduced the diversity available to listeners, according to Government officials. Moreover, the number of minority-owned FM stations has dropped significantly in the last four years.
A majority of commissioners expressed support for the idea. But the proposed opening of the FM band came under heavy criticism from the National Association of Broadcasters, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups. It raised concerns that the new stations would interfere with the signals of existing stations and also make the transition to digital radio, now under way, more difficult.
''We love the First Amendment,'' Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the association, said. ''But if everyone owns a radio station, then nobody can hear.''
Edward O. Fritts, the president of the association, said that the proposal could add as many as 4,000 low-power stations to an already congested radio band. That, he said, would ''likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters and will challenge the F.C.C. as guardian of the spectrum.''
But in an interview this afternoon, William E. Kennard, the F.C.C. chairman, warned the industry it should not ''use interference concerns as a smokescreen for other matters,'' that is, a fear of increased competition.
Other officials at the F.C.C. said that it was not clear how many new stations the changes would result in, even though the agency received 13,000 inquiries last year from individuals and groups expressing an interest in starting such stations.
The officials said that extensive study had demonstrated that low- power signals could be broadcast in most places without significant interference to the larger broadcasters. Still, some officials said it remained unclear whether the proposal would require the weakening of current rules that offer stringent protection to existing signals.
''We cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient for those who already have these opportunities,'' Mr. Kennard said in a statement with another commissioner, Gloria Tristani.
''In the past, the commission has faced incumbents raising obstacles that might impede the development of new technology. We saw this with the development of cable television service, low-power television, direct broadcast satellites and the digital audio radio service. In each instance, the commission was able to overcome these obstacles and bring new technologies to the American people.''
If adopted, the new rules would legalize a practice of ''pirate broadcasting'' that has spawned a counter-culture of broadcasters who openly defy the regulators by going on the airwaves without licenses. It would also let others who have recently petitioned the Government for a change in the rules seek broadcast licenses.
These are among the petitioners:
*The City of Atlanta, which proposes to broadcast traffic and weather reports and City Council meetings.
*A church in Florida that says broadcasting on a low-power frequency will allow sermons to be heard in complexes for the elderly by people unable to attend services.
*A blind man in Nashville who proposes to offer a variety of programming for the vision-impaired.
*Several Indian reservations that say they do not otherwise have local radio programming available.
*High schools and colleges throughout the nation.
*A group of independent musicians who now have limited access to the airwaves.
Today's action begins the rulemaking process, which agency officials said could conclude sometime this summer or later in the  year with new regulations.
The proposed rule was approved by a vote of 4 to 1, with the dissenting vote cast by the group's most conservative member, Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth, who said through an aide that he was concerned about possible interference problems.
Advances in technology have made it relatively inexpensive to broadcast low-power signals, although Federal regulations now bar such broadcasting without a license. For a few hundred dollars, equipment is available that enables broadcasting at as low a level as one watt, which normally would cover an area two miles. A 100-watt signal would cover an area of 7 miles; 1,000 watts would cover 18 miles.
Many details remain to be worked out, including how to distribute the limited spectrum in congested areas. The commission is considering holding an auction for new broadcasters and exempting noncommercial ventures like high schools and colleges from such auctions.