FCC to consider ongoing operation of existing FM6/Franken FMs, Expanded FM Band and Elimination of Reserved Band Protection Requirements
At the June FCC Open Meeting, the Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in MB Docket 03-185 in regards to Low Power TV (LPTV) stations operating on Channel 6 that provide an analog FM radio service on 87.75 MHz. REC and the FCC refer to these as "FM6" stations and they are commonly referred to as "Franken FM" stations. The FCC is also considering changes that would eliminate the reserved band FM Channel 6 protection requirements and to extend the FM broadcast band to 82.1 MHz in areas where no channel 6 operations are taking place.
It is important to remember, this is only a proposed rulemaking. The FCC has not yet approved ongoing FM6 operations, nor will the June decision approve such operations. The June decision is to re-open and expand the discussion of specific changes to the rules and like in all other NPRMs, may result in some, all or no rule changes.
Maintaining the status quo for 13 FM6 LPTV stations
For many years, LPTV channel 6 stations have found some success with using the analog audio carrier frequency of Channel 6 (87.75 MHz) to reach FM radios and operating unrelated video on their analog video carrier as the audio carrier of TV Channel 6 can be received on many FM radio receivers. With the shutdown of analog LPTV on July 13, 2021, LPTV stations operating as FM6 stations were able to seek special temporary authority (STA) to continue the analog carrier operations. New technology that has been developed allows for the insertion of an analog audio carrier within the 6 MHz spectrum of a digital television signal. This is done by allocating the lower portion of the 6 MHz TV channel to operate as a narrower digital data stream while the upper portion is used for the analog FM carrier. This permits a functional digital television station with related audio and video to operate along side the analog service. This utilizes the new ATSC3 standard.
In the NPRM public draft document, the FCC will be accepting comments on various issues including whether continued FM6 operations are in the public interest. According to the draft, there are currently 13 LPTV stations engaged in FM6 operation on STAs. The question is also being raised as to whether FM6 operation should be considered as an ancillary or supplementary service, which would mean that such services would be required to make an additional fee payment that is equivalent to 5 percent of the FM6 operation's revenues.
The FCC is also asking whether they should codify the various conditions that FM6 has been authorized to operate with under the STAs. This includes that it must operate in conjunction with an ATSC3 low power digital television service, FM6 operations can only be conducted on 87.75 MHz, no interference to other services, the station's audio and video carriers must reach similar populations, periodic written reports detailing no interference and the service reaching similar aural and video populations, the station must operate at least one free-to-air video stream, the technical facilities cannot be modified and that the station cannot be transferred. The FCC is also asking whether FM6 operations should be subject to certain rules that apply to FM radio broadcast stations.
Under the FCC proposal, only those LPTV stations that are currently engaged in FM6 operations would be able to do so and no new FM6 operations would be authorized.
Extending the FM band down to 82 MHz
In the past, both REC and NPR have advocated to extend the FM broadcast band to accommodate new noncommercial educational (NCE) FM broadcast stations. NPR endorses the use of Channel 6 spectrum, while REC had endorsed the use of Channels 5 and 6 in areas where spectrum is available. NPR states that the spectrum occupied by TV Channel 6 could accomodate up to 30 new FM stations (actually up to 30 channels within the 6 MHz TV channel). Both NPR and REC have stated in the past that the use of 82~88 MHz for FM sound broadcasting would be a far better use of a scarce resource and provide much more diversity than the use of the spectrum by an FM6 operation, or for that matter a single Chanel 6 TV station without FM6 operation. The FCC seeks comments on whether an expanded FM band should be limited to noncommercial operations or whether spectrum should also be available for commercial stations. The FCC is also inquiring about the availability of radio receivers to receive the 82-88 MHz "Wide FM" broadcast band, especially considering that most radio receivers marketed in the United States only receive about 2 or 3 channels within the proposed expanded FM band.
Eliminating the reserved band Channel 6 protection requirements
Since 1985, broadcast stations operating on 88.1~91.9 MHz, also known as the "reserved band" had to provide a level of protection to Channel 6 TV operations. Full service FM stations only had to protect full service TV stations, while LPFM, FM translator and FM booster stations had to provide protection to both full service and LPTV Channel 6 stations. In 2018, REC proposed changes specific to protection of Channel 6 by LPFM stations requesting that the FCC revert from using a "simple" distance separation method to using a contour based separation model. This was because the maximum facility values that were attributed to TV Channel 6 stations far exceeded most existing Channel 6 operations at the time. This was most pronounced by Channel 6 LPTV stations where an REC study demonstrated that a very small number of Channel 6 LPTV stations were operating at or near the maximum facility that the distance separation rules were based on. In MB Docket 19-193, the FCC had originally proposed in a circulation draft, to eliminate all FM to Channel 6 protection requirements. This was a totally unexpected move that even surprised REC. Due to two weeks of back-and-forth ex parte communications, with the most vocal objections being made by ABC Disney, the licensee of full-service Channel 6 station WPVI, Philadelphia, the FCC turned back on the complete elimination, but instead gave LPFM what REC originally asked for on a waiver basis.
In 2009, NPR demonstrated that newer digital television receivers are substantially less vulnerable from FM interference than on older analog television sets. The FCC is seeking comments on this issue, especially in light of the recent repack of television channels with the loss of Channels 38 to 51.
REC's initial positions on these various issues
While REC will completely reevaluate the issues, especially given the amount of time when these various items were last considered and with various events that have taken place including the recent repack as well as the recent rulemaking proceedings initiated by Gray Television and others to reallocate VHF TV stations to UHF, we will be prepared with a fresh set of comments and positions when the comment period is ripe on this proceeding.
In the past, REC has taken a positions that FM6 operations, if permitted, should be required to also follow various radio administrative and technical rules, including maximums on service contour sizes. In addition, commercial FM6 operations should be paying annual regulatory fees comparable to those of FM stations with similar facilities in the market, with the additional understanding that FM6 operations are secondary, but under the current rules, would only be able to be displaced by a full-service Channel 6 operation.
In the past, REC has supported an extended FM band that would repurpose TV Channels 5 and 6 (76~88 MHz) for FM sound broadcasting. In the past, REC has presented allocation plans that would protect existing Channel 5 and 6 primary full-service TV stations as well as plans that would call for the reallocation of TV stations out of this spectrum. With the latter, REC was cognizant that some stations, such as WPVI are in very spectrum crowded areas, where the opportunity to move to another channel, even within low VHF would not be possible. In the past, REC has advocated for a complete elimination of VHF low band television operations with reallocations to sound broadcasting, the Amateur Radio Service and other potential future narrow band operations where operation at these longer wavelengths would be practical. This last position is, of course, extremely forward thinking and does not reflect the reality of the current landscape in the low VHF TV broadcast band.
REC has advised the Commission on numerous occasions that the spectrum from 76~88 MHz is currently used in Japan as a part of their primary FM sound broadcast band (Japan's original FM band went from 76~90 MHz) and within the past decade, Japan has extended their FM broadcast band to 95 MHz to support their own form of "AM Revitalization". As a result, virtually all FM radios now marketed in Japan are called ワイドFM (Wide-FM) and cover the entire 76~108 MHz band. This includes radio models of all types from table models, portable radios and vehicle entertainment systems. The spectrum from 76~88 MHz is also used in Brazil and marketed as "eFM". It has been REC's position that radio receivers that are already being manufactured can be marketed in the United States (initially without any HD Radio capability) and can be of interest, especially to niche audiences such as expatriate communities.
While REC's position is that the FM to Channel 6 protection requirements should be limited, we agree that the discussion of the complete elimination of Channel 6 protections was not given a complete consideration in MB Docket 19-193 as only REC's petition to maintain, but liberalize the Channel 6 protection requirements by LPFM stations was under consideration. We agree that the discussion on total elimination of Channel 6 protections should be given a "full set of downs" with a comment and reply period. This new proceeding will be just that.
Again, these are initial positions based on historical positions taken by REC Networks in the past and are subject to change. REC will give each issue at hand in this proceeding a fresh look and consideration from an administrative, technical and common sense perspective.