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1/29/99

Last week, the FCC officially proposed making low-power FM stations a legal part of the radio dial. The statement in itself doesn't give too many details as to what this broadcast service will look like, except in the most general of forms. When the official text becomes available, expect notice here.

In a nutshell, these are the basics of legal LPFM as currently envisioned:

Three "classes" of LPFM licenses. The first would be LP-1000, or stations allowed a maximum wattage of a thousand watts. The second is LP-100, with a 100-watt power ceiling. And the third is LP-10, with a 10-watt power level.

Not all stations are equal. Only the LP-1000 licensees would be given "primary" status, granting them immunity from ever being bumped off the air by a bigger station wanting their space on the spectrum. The LP-10 and LP-100 stations would be classified as "secondary," meaning they could be bumped off the air.

Interesting contour protection. The FCC normally defines the limit at which a station's broadcast range is protected from interference by the strength of the signal it transmits. But the FCC is proposing maximum protected broadcast range in actual distance, as measured in miles.

For LP-1000 stations, that range would be about nine miles (or an 18 mile circle). For LP-100s, it would be 3.5 miles (a seven-mile circle); LP-10 broadcast range is described as one or two miles.

Relaxed channel spacing. Presently, the FCC has very strict standards for broadcast interference. For example, a station located on 92.7 must make sure it doesn't interfere with the stations located "next door," at 92.5 or 92.9, but they also must not interfere with stations "three doors down," on the dial, which would include those stations located at 92.1, 92.3, 93.1 and 93.3. 

It's called "third adjacent channel protection" - and what it does is restrict the number of allowable stations on the air, because a person looking to broadcast on 92.7 can consider themselves sunk if there's any chance their station will mess up any of the other six nearby channels. 

In the case of LPFM the FCC is considering throwing out the second and third-adjacent channel protections, which would open up a large chunk of previously unusable space. Under the proposed rule, that guy wanting 92.7 would only have to worry about that frequency and the ones to either side, making it much more likely there might be space for the station.

Two-handed ownership restrictions. Current owners of normal broadcast stations would not be allowed into LPFM, and those that are can only own one station in any one community. But the license cap will probably be set at five or ten of them nationally.

Possible bidding for frequencies.  Let's say there are two groups applying for the only available LP-1000 station license available where you live.  One is a group of people with diverse interests, planning on running a full-service-type radio station that plans extensive coverage of your community's news and events.

The other is R.F. Hogg, a rich philanthropist, who wants to set up a station to enlighten the community with 24 straight hours of Buddhist Chant.  Under current rules, the license goes to the one with more money in an auction. Ohmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.....

The commercial enigma. The FCC appears undecided for now on whether or not to allow LPFM stations to be business ventures, where commercials may be sold to pay for the station and make a profit for the owner. The Commission may decide that LPFM stations should be strictly non-commercial, which would not allow commercials on the air at all, or just make them non-profit, where the owners can't be out for commercial gain.

There's plenty of questions left unanswered, like what information will be needed to complete the applications for licenses and how long licenses will be good for (chances are they will have to be renewed some time - the current license cycle is seven years).

The biggest concern, with what we know, is the three-class system.  There will be some areas of the nation where a 1000-watt station just can't be fit, and someone wanting to fulfill the same kind of service will be restricted to a LP-100 license. And no matter how much good that station does, it could still be bumped off the air. This almost makes the concerns of outlets located in urban areas a second-class public interest.

Even so, it's important to remember that this proposal won't make the "pirate problem" go away. There will always be people with kits broadcasting at 1, 5, 10, 40 watts or more who don't want to get a license.  They're the folks protesting what they see as a desecration to a medium they've got legal rights to, they're broadcasting to support a cause, or they do it for fun. An LP-10 license may work for a few of them, but many won't bother.

And the way the proposal is structured, current "pirates" may be banned from the new LPFM game out of hand.  Don't expect them to just go away.

There's still a long way to go before ANY of this becomes reality - this is just a proposal - and there's still at least three months of public comment time to come. Two of the commissioners signed off on the proposal very cautiously. The NAB is already gearing up for a big fight, and Congress could step in at any time and kill the process. It's a start, but it's only a look to the future.