This week the FCC released another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to expand the LPFM service, with special emphasis on the placement of new LPFM stations in cities. The primary point of contention is how the agency should treat LPFM stations with regard to FM translators.

(A quick overview: LPFM stations broadcast with 100 watts or less and must be live and local, while FM translators can broadcast with up to 250 watts and may not originate their own programming.)

The spectral conflict between LPFM and translator stations is a big one. On purely technical grounds they are essentially equivalent services, but by rule translators may be sited closer to neighbors on the dial than LPFM stations can. In addition, since the first round of LPFMs were licensed a decade ago (of which 829 are on the air), several thousand FM translators have begun broadcasting in the intervening years.

The explosive growth of translators was sparked by religious broadcasters, although their most recent abusers are commercial stations. Some AM broadcasters have deployed more than 400 FM translators to “preserve” their coverage areas, while FM broadcasters have utilized translators over the last couple of years to simulcast their HD Radio programming on an analog outlet.

The latter two uses are most concerning, as they effectively allow commercial radio broadcasters to circumvent local station-ownership caps as well as hog spectrum to transmit “new” programming that nobody’s otherwise listening to (given the anemic penetration of HD Radio nationwide).

Central to the FCC’s latest LPFM NPRM is the notion of how the agency should divvy up remaining FM spectrum – especially in urban areas – to provide adequate opportunities for a meaningful expansion of the LPFM service.

The Broadcast Law Blog summarizes the key question quite succinctly:

Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on several options, including: 1.) Dismissing all pending FM translator applications and make plans for a new joint window for both LPFM and FM translators; 2.) Not dismissing any FM translator applications, but rather establish a priority for future LPFM applications; and 3.) Adopting a market-specific translator application dismissal processing policy to clear out pending FM translator applications in certain markets.

Of those options, number three seems to be the one that consensus is building around. Essentially, the FCC would establish a “market floor” which would preserve some spectrum availability for LPFM in cities.

Comment and reply-comment on this proposal will be solicited this summer/fall, and the FCC hopes to open up a new LPFM application window “no later than summer 2012.”

Many LPFM advocates are pleased to see the FCC taking action. To its credit, the agency has implemented a limited freeze on the siting of new translators in major markets while it mulls further action on LPFM.

But it’s clear that the rush of translator-construction has already claimed a lot of spectrum which will detrimentally affect the scope of any LPFM expansion. For example, according to the FCC, 290 LPFM stations exist in the nation’s top 200 radio markets while 1,921 translators occupy the dials there.

In effect, this is the last chance for new LPFM stations to be built en masse. The service deserves more than crumbs.