Translator to LPFM interference and the proposed interference rulemaking (MB Docket 18-119)

Based on two petitions for rulemaking filed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Aztec Capital Partners, the licensee of a translator in New Jersey and the massive growth and concentration of FM translators that originally started with the Great Translator Invasion of 2003 and then increased by the various efforts in 2016 to 2018 to support AM Revitalization, the FCC has opened this proceeding to address the issue of a large number of interference complaints the FCC has received from these new translators and how some form of a balance can be found between the incumbent broadcasters and the new secondary translators.  For the purpose of this document, we will limit the context to that of LPFM stations but many aspects of this document can be applied to other FM translators as well as for full-service facilities.

How translators are supposed to protect LPFM stations today

During the application preparation process (prior to filing)

Each FM translator has a primary service contour (60 dBu F[50, 50]) and interfering contours for co-channel (40 dBu F[50, 10]) and first-adjacent channel (54 dBu F[50, 10]). The basic rules on how an FM translator proposal is supposed to protect an LPFM station can be found in §74.1201(a) of the FCC Rules.  A proposed FM translator must be in a location, with a power and a directional antenna pattern where the translator's interfering contour does not overlap with the primary service contour (60 dBu F[50, 50]) of the existing LPFM station or construction permit.  In other words, the 40 dBu interfering contour of the proposed translator can not overlap the 60 dBu protected contour of an LPFM station on the same channel and the 54 dBu interfering contour of the proposed translator can not overlap the 60 dBu protected contour of an FM station on a first-adjacent channel (+/- 0.2 MHz).  FM translators are not required to protect LPFM stations on second or third adjacent channels.   An FM translator can propose a specific directional antenna pattern that can be used to "protect" the LPFM station and the translator can use different power levels if necessary.  The maximum size of an FM translator's 60 dBu service is contour is limited by specific parameters based on which type of service that it is rebroadcasting:

  • If the translator is rebroadcasting an AM station: The translator 60 dBu contour cannot exceed either 25 miles or the 2 millivolt per meter (mV/m) AM daytime contour, whichever is longer in the direction being examined but in no case shall the translator's ERP exceed 250 watts.
  • If the translator is rebroadcasting an FM station as a fill-in service (including the rebroadcast of HD Radio streams): The translator service contour must remain entirely within the service contour of the primary station but in no case shall the translator's ERP exceed 250 watts.
  • If the translator is rebroadcasting an FM station outside of its service contour (non-commercial stations, LPFM stations or translators owned by other entities such as municipal governments): The ERP is limited based on the maximum height above average terrain (HAAT) of the FM translator facility with a maximum equivalency of 250 watts at 32 meters HAAT in areas east of the Mississippi River as well as most of California, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands or the maximum equivalency of 250 watts at 107 meters HAAT in all other areas. In no case shall a translator be authorized more than 250 watts ERP.

As long as there is a lack of contour overlap between the FM translator and the LPFM station (as well as other stations), then the application can possibly be granted. 

At the time of filing

Once an FM translator application is filed, the next step depends on the type of application that it is:

  • If the application is a short form filed during an initial window for new translator applications, then that application is merely a "concept" more than any thing.  A short form application can be identified through the fact that it is an application for a new permit (begins with BNPFT) and a lack of any information entered into the legal section of the application.  These short forms are used primarily to determine if the the application is proposing a facility that conflicts with another application to determine if the translator applicant will be going to auction.  Once the short form proposal is declared "singleton" (through either an original non-conflicting proposal, a proposal with conflicts that were resolved or as the winner of an auction), then the applicant will be given the opportunity to file a long form application during a designated restricted filing window. 
  • If the application is a long form filed during a designated restricted filing window for long form applications, this is a true application and it must protect all facilities using the contour method that was previously discussed.  These applications will be for new permits (begins with BNPFT) and will have the legal section filled out.  Once the FCC reviews the application, they will consider the application as "accepted for filing" which at that point, there will be a 15 day opportunity for those who wish to file a "petition to deny" can do so.  This process is used for all new broadcast stations (including LPFM) to give an opportunity for anyone with standing to discuss why this application should not be granted.  Informal objections can also be filed at any time up to the decision by any interested party.  If there are no objections or after all objections have been disposed of, then the application will be either dismissed (if there is an issue with the application) or will be granted.   Dismissed applicants will have 30 days to seek reconsideration of the dismissal.
  • If the application is a modification to an existing license or construction permit (as indicated by an application beginning with BPFT or BMPFT), then there is no petition to deny process.  Modifications can be filed at any time (except during an announced application freeze). Once the application is "accepted for filing", then it could be granted or dismissed at any time.  In these cases, you may still be able to file an informal objection to make any claims about the modification proposal.

When this happens, the LPFM station would need to determine the 60 dBu service contour of the proposed facility.  In many cases, you can get this from REC's website fccdata.org.  Sometimes, the FCC does not show the proper service contour but if you go to the "advanced coverage map" on the application as it is listed in fccdata, one of the curves is the 60 dBu.  

§74.1204(f) of the rules state that applications for an FM translator station will not be accepted for filing even though the proposed operation would not involve overlap of field strength contours of any other station, if the predicted 1 mV/m (60 dBu) field strength contour of the FM translator will overlap a populated area already receiving a regularly-used, off-the-air signal of any authorized co-channel, first, second or third-adjacent channel broadcast station, including Class D (secondary) noncommercial educational FM stations and the grant of the authorization will result in interference to the reception of such station. 

Therefore, if you are able to identify bona-fide "disinterested" listeners in the 60 dBu contour of the proposed translator, the listener can make a listener statement that can be submitted with your informal objection or petition to deny the grant.  If you can make a showing that you have bona-fide "disinterested" listeners to your established station, then you may have a case to get the translator dismissed.  The translator applicant may try to file an amendment to their application to resolve the interference by changing the service contour to leave the area of your listeners.  They can even do this up to 30 days after the application is dismissed.  There are certain limitations on the types of changes they can do to resolve the predicted interference.

After FM translator construction is completed

If the translator application is granted, the permittee has up to 3 years to build their facility.  In most cases, the translator permittee must file their license to cover application (Form 350) on the day that they commence operations.  Based on the FCC's workload, this application can be granted either the same day or up to about a week or so.   Translator license applications will have the prefix BLFT.

§74.1203(a) of the rules states, in part, that an authorized FM translator will not permitted to continue to operate if it causes any actual interference to the direct reception by the public of the off-the-air signals of any authorized broadcast station including TV Channel 6 stations, Class D (secondary) noncommercial educational FM stations, and previously authorized and operating FM translator and FM booster stations. Interference will be considered to occur whenever the reception of a regular used signal is impaired by the signals radiated by the FM translator station, regardless of the quality of such reception, the strength of the signal so used, or the channel on which the protected signal is transmitted.   NOTE: While the various translator interference rules may not specifically address LPFM stations, the FCC has recognized LPFM stations as an "authorized broadcast station" and therefore still subject to similar protections.

What this means for LPFM stations is that if a new translator causes you to lose listeners, regardless of whether that listener is inside or outside of your LPFM service contour, then you may have standing to take action.  

First, you will need to identify your affected listeners and get bona-fide listener statements from them.   If the license application is not yet granted and you need additional time, it may be a good idea to immediately file an informal objection for the purpose of withholding processing on the application explaining briefly that you need to evaluate possible interference to the LPFM station.  This should prevent staff from granting while anticipating a subsequent filing from the LPFM on the interference.  If you ask to withhold processing, you should put in actual objection (or a withdrawal if no interference is determined) within about 7 days of filing the request to withhold processing. 

At this point, the FCC may have the translator cease operations temporarily while still being able to make adjustments and do "on-off" tests to see if the interference is fixed.  The translator permittee may try to reach out directly to your listeners.  This is allowed.  The translator may be able to file a modification in order to resolve the interference.  It is also possible the FCC will dismiss the license application but keep the construction permit in tact thus giving the translator an opportunity to file for a modification to resolve the interference. 

LPFM applicants making modifications

LPFM stations are required to protect FM translators based on a distance separation table as opposed to translators protecting LPFM stations using contours.  As long as the LPFM station meets the minimum distance separation to a translator (authorization or application) using the distance tables in §73.807, then there is no interference and any complaint is not actionable.  FM translators can file an interference complaint against an LPFM station if the LPFM station causes actual interference to the input channel of a translator (§73.827(b)).  

Listener complaint guidelines

First of all, we need to point out that in order for an LPFM to file a complaint against a translator, the LPFM must be up and running and fully licensed at the site experiencing interference prior to the translator applicant filing their application proposing their facilities (including the short form).  You cannot claim protection for a facility that is under a construction permit or awaiting a grant of a modification application.  

In order for a complaint to be valid, it must be from a disinterested listener.  The FCC defines disinterested as a person or entity without a legal stake in the outcome of the translator station licensing proceeding.  For the purposes of being over-cautious for an LPFM, that should include all board members, any paid staff at the station (engineers, managers, etc.), volunteers and underwriters.  

The complaint should be in a form that includes:

  • The listener's name.
  • Home address.
  • Locations where the FM translator interference occurs.  Please use actual street locations, not just city names.
  • A statement that the complainant is, in fact, a listener of the affected station. 

Listeners should be advised that if they sign a complaint form, that their information will become public record and they could be contacted by the translator applicant who may try to compel them to participate in efforts to resolve the interference claim which may include gaining access to their property and purchasing them a new radio receiver.

Filing pleadings with the FCC

For information on how to file an informal objection, petition to deny or petition for reconsideration, see our page on filing pleadings.

REC strongly recommends using an attorney.  For a list of attorneys, see our Recommendations page.

MB Docket 18-119: The FCC's proposed fix to the translator interference problem

On May 10, 2018, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Media Bureau (MB) Docket 18-119.  In this proceeding, the FCC is seeking comments on the following:

  • Allowing FM translators to change to any channel to resolve interference as a minor modification.
  • Requiring a minimum number of listener complaints in order to have a valid interference claim.
  • Standardizing the information that must be in the interference complaint.
  • Streamlining and expediting the interference complaint procedure.
  • Establishing an outer contour limit for the affected station beyond which listener complaints would not be considered actionable.
  • Modifying the scope of interference complaints that can be filed by affected stations at the application stage.

Let's touch into these bullet points using the knowledge that we gained about the current interference procedure. We will also touch on some REC preliminary positions on each issue.

Allowing FM translators to change to any channel to resolve interference as a minor modification

Currently, a translator may only change to a channel that is a minor change relationship.  This means only 1, 2, 3, 53 or 54 channels (0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 10.6 or 10.8 MHz) above or below.  Non-commercial translators may only switch between commercial (92.1~107.9) and non-commercial (88.1~91.9) channels if their original construction permit is still unbuilt.  Upon a triggering application by a full-service FM station that would result in the translator's displacement, the translator can move to any channel (as long as they stay within the reserved or non-reserved bands). 

Like with translators, LPFM stations can change to a channel that is a minor change relationship.  Unlike translators, LPFM stations can change between commercial and reserved non-commercial channels even if the LPFM station is built.  In addition, an LPFM station can move to any channel upon a showing of reduced interference.  A reduced interference showing in LPFM is a demonstration either through contours or through Longley/Rice propagation studies that the new channel will result in less interference either to or from the LPFM station requesting the change.

Under the proposed rule, FM translators would be permitted to change to any channel (with the restriction going between commercial and non-commercial channels remaining) upon a showing of interference to or from any other broadcast station.  

REC does support the ability for FM translators to change to any channel in the band as this would bring FM translators in line LPFM where it comes to these kind of changes.  We do feel though that FM translators should be required to show the same burden as LPFM to demonstrate that the alternate channel does receive or produce less interference.

Requiring a minimum number of listener complaints in order to have a valid interference claim

Current rules and policies do not require a minimum number of listeners (technically, the current process is just one listener).  The FCC is proposing that in order for the interference process to be triggered, there must be a minimum of six bona-fide listener complaints.

REC is interested in hearing from the LPFM constituency regarding the requirement of 6 complaints, especially in light of the outer limit being proposed below.  

Standardizing the information that must be in the interference complaint

The FCC is proposing to strengthen the bona-fide listener complaint process to require listener complaints to be signed and include:

  • The listener's full name and contact information.
  • A clear, concise and accurate description of the location where the interference is alleged to occur.
  • A statement that the complainant listens to the desired station at least twice a month (to demonstrate that they are a regular listener).
  • A statement that the listener does not have any legal, financial or familial affiliation to the desired station. 

Complaints from impacted stations would require maps showing listener locations in relation to relevant station contours.

REC agrees that listener statements must in a standardized format and include these basic items in order to move forward as a valid complaint.

Streamlining and expediting the interference complaint procedure

Under the current rules, if a translator accused of interference wants to address the issue, they can compel your listeners to cooperate with them to the point providing access to their home or property and the accepting new equipment and if the listener refuses to cooperate, the translator can be absolved of that interference complaint.  The FCC proposes to take the end-user listener completely out of the resolution process and require a translator permittee/licensee to submit a technical showing where using accepted methodologies (contours, undesired/desired ratio, on-off tests, etc.) have demonstrated that the interference has been eliminated.  

REC has recently heard of cases where complaining listeners are being threatened with litigation by translators allegedly causing interference.  REC supports a position that goes even further that allows incumbent stations to be permitted to redact listener name, exact address and contact information but still make available to Commission staff with limited information such as location information made available to the interfering translator and a high level view (overall map) made available to the general public.  While this method may have worked better in the days before electronic filing, there are some serious privacy implications by making listener data public.  The listener should not be made the victim and should be afforded privacy and whistleblower rights when reporting interference.

Establishing an outer contour limit for the affected station beyond which listener complaints would not be considered actionable

A famous saying here at REC is "contours can be deceiving".  In fact, contours are used mainly for frequency allocation and based on an estimated field strength that 50% of all receivers can hear 50% of the time.  It is a formula based on a graph with intersecting effective radiated power, height above average terrain and distance to determine estimated field strength at a particular location.  Here in the USA, the FCC considers the service area of most FM facilities to be 60 dBu with some facilities being at 57 or 54 dBu.  In the rest of the world, 54 dBu is the norm for FM facilities. 

The FCC is proposing an "outer limit" for valid interference complaints and the initial number they are proposing is 54 dBu.  This would mean that the incumbent FM station could only submit listener complaints from listeners within their station's 54 dBu contour.  Any complaints outside of their 54 dBu contour would not be valid complaints.

For many LPFM stations, especially those in flat areas of the country, the 54 dBu contour extends to 5 miles from the transmitter site and eliminate the ability to claim interference at the application level by stating listeners are inside the 60 dBu of the proposed translator.  This means that an LPFM station would only be able to claim interference for about 1.5 miles from outside of their service contour.  In comparison, a Class A station can claim additional protection at over 6 miles and a Class C to about 10 extra miles.   REC does support an outer limit however 54 dBu is far too close as in most parts of the world, 54 dBu is considered a standard field strength for a reliable stereo FM broadcast station.  

Currently with the current distance spacing rules and the 20 km buffer zone, LPFM stations are "protecting" full service out to approximately the 49 to 52 dBu service contour based on class (47 dBu for Class B1 and 45 dBu for Class B).  There needs to be more flexibility for incumbent stations here or we need to approach translator protections to incumbent stations a little different (perhaps a buffer zone for FM translators?). 

Modifying the scope of interference complaints that can be filed by affected stations at the application stage

Finally, the FCC proposes to make some "housekeeping" changes to §74.1203 and §74.1204 by removing service specific language where it comes to secondary services being protected under these rules and replacing it with "any full service stations and previously authorized secondary service stations."

REC brought this up in MB Docket 17-105 as it has created confusion and was used as a defense in order to attempt to invalidate interference claims made by LPFM stations.  The new language is more acceptable.

When and where can I comment?

Once the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, the FCC will announce deadline dates for comments and reply comments.  We will update this document when that happens. 

REC reminds commenters that any contacts made directly with Commission decision making staff (including Commissioners and Media Bureau staff) regarding this proceeding must be made known to the public through the Commission's ex parte presentation rules.  

If you have any questions about this proceeding or translator interference, please inquire in the REC LPFM social media channel.