Best laid plans...Two new studies show dangers of a translator “ten cap” at FCC

Update March 2012: We won! The FCC released new rules on March 19, 2012 that implement a market-by-market analysis to ensure space for new LPFMs. See our article explaining the details. Thank you to everyone who wrote letters to the FCC on this issue! The text below, from Fall 2010, is outdated. We have preserved it here to give historical background on the translator fight at the FCC.  

Two studies released by Common Frequency show that a well-intentioned FCC plan may actually gut the potential of community radio. Intended as a compromise, this plan would actually hand over the vast majority of open frequencies to companies that already own stations, keeping community radio off the dial in urban areas.

The back story

How did the FCC get into this mess? In 2003, three years after Congress limited LPFM, the FCC opened an auction for translators--mini-stations that repeat the signals of other radio stations. When a staggering 13,000 applications were filed, Prometheus asked the FCC to freeze the auction. We argued that processing the applications would kill LPFM, and the FCC agreed. For years, the FCC has tried to find a way to resolve the auction and still preserve space for LPFM, waiting for the day when we pass the Local Community Radio Act and Congress permits LPFMs in cities.

The current plan is called the ten cap. It would require those who applied for translators back in 2003 to choose their ten favorite applications and dismiss the rest (some have dozens or even hundreds of applications for translators nationwide). But according to Common Frequency, most available channels in urban markets will still go to translators even after the ten cap. This leaves almost nothing for the groups who have waited ten years for just one radio station to serve their communities.

Over the years, Prometheus has suggested various proposals, including variants on the ten cap itself, but we have always argued that the FCC’s main consideration must be the rights of local communities to access the airwaves. However, we haven’t had much good data on the eventual impact of any of these proposals until now.

Data-driven reality check

Common Frequency, community radio advocates and tech geniuses from Davis, California, did two simulations to predict the impact of the ten cap. The first study showed that 97 percent of the the channels applied for in 2003 would get taken by translators, even after a ten cap. The second study looked at all open channels, including those from 2003, in several cities--just in case there were a few open spots missed by the 13,000 translator applications. Within these seven cities (a range of the top 25 markets in the country), the study showed a very grim outlook for community radio. Without other steps to preserve channels for LPFM, the ten cap alone won't work.

The ten cap sounded like a good idea. It punishes speculators, those who applied for licenses just to sell them for profit. But without a rule that LPFMs have priority for channels, or a commitment that LPFM applications go first, these studies show that a ten cap won’t do anything to save space for community radio. The best channels would go to stations that already have access to the airwaves, and there won’t be anything left for the rest of us.

Check out the Translator Ten Cap page for more information. Both studies are available here to read, along with a one-page summary on the effects of the ten cap. If you have any questions, or want to help preserve space for LPFM in your community, contact us!