Statement of REC Networks: WMGG(AM) All-Digital Operation

For AM broadcast stations, making a change to all-digital operation means that their AM station would no longer be heard by listeners with a conventional AM radio, including those AM and AM/FM radios that people have in emergency preparedness kits.  In some areas of our country, the AM radio station, especially during the daytime, may provide some of the only localized emergency information either originated from the station or through the Emergency Alert System (EAS). 

Based on the success of the experiments taking place at WWFD, Frederick, MD, the FCC moved forward to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to permit AM stations with the option to convert to an all-digital operation. 

During the overall rulemaking proceeding, REC had expressed concerns that there would be an impact to listeners if an AM station was to suddenly go digital.  Under current rules for hybrid digital broadcasting (where there is still an analog signal), the FCC permits AM (and FM) stations to turn on their digital service without prior authorization from the FCC and then notify the FCC through the Digital Notification Form within 10 days of the operation.  To address the potential impact to communities that are served by AM stations, REC asked the FCC to require that AM stations receive advance authorization to go all-digital through a construction permit process.  This will allow public participation in the change.  Remember, the public owns the spectrum.

Based on our concerns, as well as concerns regarding potential new interference to other AM stations, the FCC decided not to use a construction permit process, but instead to require AM stations planning to go digital to file a Digital Notification Form, but they must wait a minimum of 30 days before they commence digital operations.  During that 30 day period, the AM station must give reasonable notification to listeners that the station will be commencing digital operations and that they will no longer be receivable on a conventional AM radio.  REC found the FCC’s method to be acceptable as it still requires education to the public and does allow for public participation in the record.

Recently, there were reports in the trade media that WMGG, Egypt Lake, FL had filed a Digital Notification Form to move to all-digital operation.  This was touted as the first AM station since the enactment of the new rules to go all-digital.  Because one of the rules §73.406, was not yet enacted due to a requirement that the rule and it’s associated information collection (including a new Digital Notification Form) must first receive approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), WMGG used an interim procedure outlined in the Report and Order creating all-digital AM.  In their Digital Notification Form, WMGG stated that they would commence digital operation 5 days after the date that the Digital Notification Form was filed.  On the date of operation, supposedly at the request of FCC staff, WMGG filed for a Special Temporary Authority (STA) for “experimental” operation to run all-digital. 

As a result of these applications filed, REC Networks filed an Informal Objection against the Digital Notification and the STA.  Our objection was based on the fact that WMGG did not follow the provisions of the Report and Order by commencing all-digital operations less than 30 days prior to filing the Digital Notification Form.  REC had received reports from multiple software defined radio (SDR) users that WMGG did, in fact, turn off their analog and went to an all-digital signal.  30 days since their Digital Notification Form filing have not passed as of the writing of this statement.  REC further stated that an “experimental” STA was not appropriate since the STA request did not include any new technology or innovation that needed to be experimented with that was not already tested and proven at WWFD.

In a letter sent to WMGG and REC, FCC staff acknowledged that it would be unlikely that an experimental STA would be granted in an effort to circumvent the 30 day notification requirement and that the portion of the rule with the 30 day process had not been approved by OMB.  When the rules (other than §73.406) was published in the Federal Register, REC had stated that until the OMB approves §73.406, the action does nothing but make the WWFD operation permanent and that other stations wishing to convert to all-digital must wait until §73.406 is published in the Federal Register in order to file and convert. 

In the letter sent by Staff, WMGG was given the choice of either (1) complying with the 30 day requirement (in other words, letting them go digital before §73.406 as long as they wait the 30 days), (2) opposing the REC Informal Objection or (3) wait until §73.406 is enacted and file the regular way. 

In an ex parte letter sent to staff, WMGG had stated that because of “REC’s agenda”, they will abandon all-digital AM operation and that switching back to analog operation would be “egg on the face” from a business standpoint. 

As REC stated, both in our objection as well as in private communications with WMGG, we encouraged them to continue their conversion to digital, but it must be done in accordance with the rules and processes laid out in the Report and Order, which calls for a 30 day notification period prior to commencing all-digital operations. 

In this case, WMGG tried to jump the gun in order to bestow the title of “being the first”.  Nothing that REC has done will prevent that.  They can still be “the first”, but they will have to delay commencement for the required 30 days.  Even if another station was to apply for all-digital today, WMGG did file first and could still be the first, post rules, to go all-digital.  WMGG’s business decision to jump the gun was just a simple mistake in judgment. 

REC has always supported all-digital AM, even over the objection of many in the hobbyist community that REC aligns with who objected to the concept.  WMGG was in a good situation where their all-digital operation would be somewhat viable and would present another facility geographically distant from WWFD to allow more evaluation of the performance of all-digital AM.

Our main issue with allowing stations to convert prior to the 30 days would contravene the rules that REC was a part of and that their premature deployment would not set precedence for other stations to circumvent the consumer protections that the FCC put into place with enacting the 30-day rule. 

Again, we continue to encourage to WMGG to continue with their all-digital plans, but to do so in a manner that complies with the rules.  Therefore, they should wait until February 6, 2021 to turn on their all-digital.  They will still be the first.