20-401: REC files comments in FM Booster "Geo-Targeting" proceeding. New boosters must follow LCRA.

REC Networks has filed comments in MB Docket 20-401, which calls for changes to the rules for FM boosters to permit “geo-targeted” or independent programming.  FM boosters are available to FM and LPFM stations in order to provide FM service into areas where the station is unable to be heard due to terrain by synchronously rebroadcasting the primary station’s audio over an additional lower powered transmitter.  The booster rules require that the service contour of the FM booster remain entirely inside the service contour of the primary station that the booster rebroadcasts.  Boosters are only required to protect first-adjacent channel facilities.

GEO Broadcast Solutions (GBS), the proponent of technology to “geo-target” specific programming into certain parts of a broadcast station’s service contour using FM boosters is asking the FCC to allow FM boosters to be able to carry up to three minutes of programming different than what is carried on the primary station.  This is to allow for the station to carry targeted advertising, news and other programming. 

REC is concerned that such aggressive marketing of the Geo Targeting technology by GBS will create a “booster boom” (a significant increase in FM booster applications), which could result in interference to other secondary spectrum users as well as “self-interference” to listeners as they travel in to areas where, because of capture effect, the FM receiver is unable to discriminate between the primary station’s main transmitter and the booster, thus making for a horrible listening experience and driving more people away from radio and over to streaming services.

The GBS petition and the subsequent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted by the FCC also fails to mention the statutory implications of an uptick in new booster applications in respect to the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which states that LPFM stations, FM translators and FM boosters must remain secondary and equal in status and that the issuing of new LPFM, translator and booster licenses must be done based on local community need.

REC supports the use of boosters, but only in cases where there is a significant audience that would benefit from an added radio service into an area, such as the various valleys and canyons of Southern California.  REC co-sponsored the first LPFM booster for KWSV-LP, Simi Valley, CA, which resulted in a significant portion of their service contour that was blocked by terrain being able to receive the station. 

In comments, REC proposed the following:

  • In order to implement the LCRA’s “local community need” language, we proposed a “Community Need Criteria” for new boosters (and we extend it to modified boosters, even though not required by statute).  Under the REC Community Need Criteria, the 60 dBu service contour of a proposed booster must serve an area where at least 40% of the population does not receive at least a 54 dB field strength signal from the primary station using Longley/Rice terrain-based propagation prediction.  We feel that this is a very liberal criteria and is consistent with the FCC’s original goal for boosters (to overcome intervening terrain) and with at least 40% of the population in the area now receiving a usable FM signal, community need for the booster is met.
  • In order to implement the LCRA’s “equal in status” language as well as to address actual interference issues, we have proposed a requirement that all new and modified FM booster facilities be required to protect LPFM and translator stations on co-channel.  Currently, there is no co-channel protection requirement between boosters and other secondary services.
  • REC has asked the Commission to assure that any protection from FM boosters treat LPFM stations as nondirectional facilities, even if the LPFM is operating a directional antenna due to a second-adjacent channel waiver or a public safety agency operating the station as a traveler information service.  In addition, REC has asked the Commission to codify in the rules, the expectation that FM translators treat directional LPFMs as nondirectional in cases of second-adjacent waivers.
  • Amend §74.1204(f) of the Rules to allow for interference objections to be filed against proposed booster construction permit applications if a showing can be made that there will be interference as defined in the current remediation rule for FM translators.   (Boosters are already covered in §74.1203(a) for interference experienced after the booster is on the air.)
  • Assure that FM boosters that are running independent content, will immediately break away from independent content and back to the main program in the event of an activation of the Emergency Alert System.

REC is disappointed that Commissioners Starks and Carr see GeoTargeting as a “diversity” issue, quoting from the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) that GeoTargeting will help minority-owned commercial stations be able to put up boosters and provide “multi-lingual programming”.  Race is only one part of broadcast diversity.  Broadcast diversity is also about a diversity of different voices from all cultures having access to spectrum.  A booster boom only benefits a small number of stations and may actually reduce the number of minority-owned stations in the long run.  REC feels that broadcast programming diversity can be best achieved through expansion of LPFM, a new Low Power AM service, a rural exemption for NCE stations, alternative spectrum such as the 11 meter shortwave band and through the deployment and marketing of FM HD Radio multicast streams. 

While REC supports the concept of allowing commercial, NCE and LPFM stations to be able to divert up to 3 minutes of their booster airtime to alternate programming, it should not be done at the expense of the original purpose of FM boosters, a service that brings radio stations into areas blocked by terrain.

Reply comments are due on March 12, 2021.