Letter to Chief of FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau regarding LPFM participation in the September 2017 Nationwide EAS Test
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Dear Ms. Fowlkes,
I am very sad to say that this is the second year in a row that I have had to write to you regarding results of the participation of LPFM stations in a Nationwide EAS test. As a major stakeholder who advocates for the LPFM service, I am very disappointed by the outcome of LPFM’s overall participation in the test. While LPFM stations did report an increase in receiving and retransmitting the test message, the actual percentage of LPFM stations participating was very disappointing. After the 2016 test results, I had hoped that Staff would have reached out to me, so we could work on uncovering why the participation was so low and what we could do to improve it.
First thing that is important to realize about LPFM is that unlike other broadcast services, LPFM is more of a utility service where the operators of stations are far more segmented than that of full-service commercial or non-commercial broadcast stations. Unlike other broadcast stations, LPFM stations are also used by state and local governments as Traveler Information Stations (TIS) similar to the service offered in the Part 90 Public Safety Pool on AM broadcasting frequencies. Currently, Part 90 TIS stations do not have an EAS obligation however Part 73 LPFM stations operating as TIS do have this requirement. I do note though that TIS usage of LPFM is a fairly small percentage.
LPFM stations normally fall under six high level segments: community broadcasting (organizations with open governance), cause-based organizations (organizations established originally for a purpose other than broadcasting), microradio (organizations established for the sole purpose of running a radio station), public safety/PEG, secular educational institutions and faith-based organizations. With how segmented the LPFM service is, there is no one or two membership organizations that support this service in the same way that organizations like the National Association of Broadcasters, National Religious Broadcasters or the National Federation of Community Broadcasters would provide services to these stations. A small number of LPFM stations are members of their state broadcasters’ associations while others refuse to join because of the anti-LPFM stance of some of the state associations. Many LPFM stations do not join an existing national organization due to their membership fees and in some cases, their stance on the LPFM service. The advocacy of LPFM does rely primarily on volunteers and since the passage of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, there has been much less funding and support for a more structured advocacy like we once had with Prometheus Radio Project. Therefore, many LPFM stations that do not rely on the messaging that REC, Prometheus and the collective of LPFM stations on social media provide in order to keep stations updated on proceedings at the FCC.
Following the release of the report, I had released the results of the September 2017 EAS Test and asked for comments on why it was likely that the LPFM results were so poor in comparison to LPTV and full-service radio broadcasting. Through the comments on social media which consist mainly of respondents from the cause-based, community radio and micro-radio segments; these seem to be the top issues they had experienced, keeping in mind that should be assumed that all respondents to the social media posts did participate in the Test:
- Interaction with ETRS: The biggest complaint that I have received both during this informal information gathering session and last year leading up to the test was regarding the difficulty in using the ETRS, especially since the process changed from the previous year. Some LPFM stations experienced extreme difficulty in getting FRNs linked to their stations, others reported browser compatibility issues, the process of having to file three times (keeping in mind, many of these stations are all volunteer) and as many of these stations have limited staff and volunteers, they can not spend multiple days trying to figure out the FCC system, especially when it changes year after year.
- Lack of communication from the FCC: Another big complaint is that no one ever hears about anything related to EAS directly from the FCC. One respondent had suggested that the FCC mail a postcard to all broadcasters prior to the test to remind them about the upcoming test. Perhaps, something like this should be piloted in the LPFM service for the next Nationwide Test to see if it increases awareness.
On this bullet point, I would like to add that I feel that one of the primary root causes of this is due to the fact that EAS is handled by the PSHSB as opposed to the Media Bureau (MB). LPFM stations are normally looking for news and other material coming from MB. Some tools, such as REC’s http://fcc.today monitors the MB’s RSS feed for news items. The news feed for PSHSB also includes other efforts under the jurisdiction of the Bureau including E911, disaster reporting, public safety interconnectivity plans (FirstNet) and other non-broadcast topics. This information is way too much for the small LPFM station that may be ran by only one or two people (or in some cases, are merely “translators” for satellite networks, an application for LPFM that REC staunchly opposes) and therefore, the appropriate parties are not reached. Also, it is likely that LPFM stations that are run as TIS or “satellite translators” are merely “set and forget” and the EAS is not normally monitored (if there’s even an EAS installed at all), which brings us to the likely root cause why many LPFMs did not participate.
- They can’t afford the equipment: LPFM stations run on shoe string budgets. They already have a requirement for certified transmitters, a requirement I support because of the glut of illegal pirate radio transmitters being sold by large vendors such as Amazon.com which do not meet the most basic engineering standards for FM radio. Over the years, REC has received the question multiple times of whether a station could go on the air without an EAS to start with. Because of the lab testing certification requirements for EAS decoders and the limited options of decoder models, the pricing of these units are a substantial investment for these LPFM stations with small budgets. In some cases, the EAS is almost as expensive as the transmitter. I can totally understand why some LPFM stations may not have EAS capability. They can’t shell out two to three thousand dollars for a decoder as well as additional charges for software or hardware upgrades when the Government makes changes to the CAP protocol and rejects requests for workarounds that would keep more stations running older equipment in compliance.
Overall, the lab testing requirement for decode-only units is one of the things that is driving some of this non-compliance. REC supports the development of an open source solution that could permit LPFM stations with a spare computer and multiple soundcards or software defined radio receivers to construct their own EAS decode-only unit that would be CAP compliant and using off-the-shelf computer peripherals could be made into a full CAP/EAS decoder that could receive at least two over the air monitoring assignments and monitor IPAWS and would likely be able to get a waiver of the certification requirement under §11.34(e). A company in Canada, OpenBroadcaster has an open source CAP solution that has already been accepted for use in Canada and could be used in the United States with some additional software development and appropriate memorandums of agreement with FEMA. REC is working with this developer to support progress on an open source solution that could make EAS affordable for all LPFM stations.
LPFM stations are the last in line on the EAS path and there are many LPFM stations that do want to fully comply with the EAS regulations however because these decoder regulations were put in a “one size fits all” solution for LPFM, LPTV and small MVPDs for which the latter two are commercial entities with the opportunity to make profits that can be passed on to the maintenance of certified EAS decoders. LPFM stations do not enjoy that luxury. In many cases, LPFM stations would have fewer listeners at one time than many LPTV stations and small MVPDs would have viewers.
I do feel that if we work together, we can increase the LPFM compliance within the spirit of the Emergency Alert System. The first and foremost thing is that we need a more customized solution for non-profit LPFM stations to have a more streamlined way of integrating EAS into their audio chain. Such solutions could eventually include a software-based CAP-only option and/or the complete elimination of a certification process for EAS decoders which are used for non-commercial educational LPFM and FM Class D stations. I do note that in Canada, the CRTC does not use over the air reception of emergency alerts but instead depends solely on a CAP compliant feed that is available through an open IP network and through free to air satellite. This is something we may want to look at as a long term plan for the future of EAS as a whole.
LPFM stations have an obligation to carry national EAS messages and to voluntarily participate in state and local level messages. This is what community radio is all about. It should not have to take several months of fundraising to recuperate the costs of a new decoder and then ongoing campaigns to raise funds solely for the software and hardware upgrades required in the future (in all fairness, not all manufacturers charge for software/firmware-only upgrades).
In the long run, I do feel that it would be in the best interest of smaller NCE stations including LPFM to eventually eliminate the antiquated requirement to monitor over the air resources and to go to a system that depends on CAP/IPAWS only. This would substantially reduce the costs for LPFM stations to comply, allow EAS to be directly integrated into automation software used by some LPFM stations and allow for the quality of EAS messages to be much clearer than those that are received over the air, especially considering that 92.5% of the audio quality complaints were from over the air sources as opposed to IPAWS. The report from the 2016 test shows that 97.1% of all radio broadcasters are already monitoring IPAWS so a move of some stations to IPAWS only would not have a huge impact.
In the meantime, I do feel that the Commission needs to make some immediate improvements on communications to broadcasters, especially small NCE and LPFM stations. This can include the Media Bureau having more involvement in communicating EAS matters specific to radio and TV broadcasters and potentially looking into a pilot program to send “postcards” to all LPFM stations prior to the next national EAS test to raise awareness of the upcoming test.
I am willing to come to DC to meet with any of you or join in any roundtable discussions as a stakeholder in the LPFM service.
Thank you for your time and if you have any further questions, please let me know.