Clearing the Airwaves: Next steps in processing pending translator applications

January 2013

In late 2012, the FCC announced that they would begin accepting applications for new low power stations on October 15, 2013. At last! But we know that the FCC's predictions on timing aren't always set in stone (to put it mildly). So what are the steps ahead before the FCC can accept new applications for community radio stations? 

The biggest task ahead is that the FCC must deal with a backlog of pending applications for FM translators. These are repeater stations that extend the signal of existing radio stations. This is the issue most likely to affect the timing of the low power radio filing window.

Thousands of translator applications have been on hold at the FCC since 2003. To save room for low power radio stations in urban areas with limited spectrum, the FCC will be dismissing many of these translator applications. 

The FCC decided on a translator processing plan in March 2012, and that plan was modified slightly in the Fifth Order on Reconsideration, released in November 2012.

There are two major parts to the FCC's translator plan. 

First, in markets with limited spectrum available for low power radio, the FCC will dismiss any translator applications that block opportunities for new low power radio stations in the urban core of the market. To facilitate this, the FCC has created a list of locations and channels that must be protected for low powr radio. To save a translator application in these “spectrum limited” areas, the applicant must prove that their application won’t block any future low power radio opportunities (or if they might block a future station, there must be room for at least one other station at that site). (Watch our four minute video Translating the Translator Issue explaining this plan.)

In addition to the market-based dismissals, the FCC has also placed both national and local ownership caps on the pending translator applications. Nationally, each applicant may keep no more than 50 of its pending applications in the top 150 markets, and no more than 20 applications in other markets. Locally, each company may keep no more than three of its pending applications per market, and these three may not overlap.

Now that the translator rules are settled, the next step is a January 10-24 filing window, during which translator applicants must tell the FCC which of their applications they wish to keep in compliance with these national and market caps. The rest of the applications will be dismissed.

After this, applicants will have to file a showing demonstrating that their applications won’t block any protected low power radio opportunities in spectrum-limited locations. Finally, the remaining translator applications will proceed to auction. 

All of this will happen over the next several months, hopefully before the FCC's predicted October 15 date for a low power radio filing window. To determine where channels for community radio will be available, the FCC must accept or dismiss nearly all of these translator applications prior to accepting new applications for low power stations. 

The bottom line

The FCC has a lot of work to do to meet its Oct 15 deadline. It's possible, but it's also very possible that the FCC wil postpone the window by a few months. Prometheus will do all we can to push the agency to a speedy start to low power licensing!