Last week, the FCC approved significant rule changes to the low-power FM radio service; this week the agency formally released the text of those changes.

There’s a lot of good things in the latest Report and Order. LPFM stations have finally achieved something close to technical and legal parity with FM translator stations. LPFM rules have been refined to provide a substantive preference for those who actually plan to focus on live and local programming. And the next filing window for new LPFM stations will open in the fall of next year.

The more truly community radio stations there are, the better our media environment becomes. But it’s a bittersweet accomplishment in the face of the massive grab for FM spectrum that took place between 1997 – the year the first LPFM Petitions for Rulemaking were filed by the public – and today.

The short backstory: when the FCC opened its first LPFM filing window more than 10 years ago, it froze applications for new FM translator stations until 2003. That year, nearly 14,000 translator applications were filed – many were openly speculative, tendered by groups who planned to flip these stations to willing buyers for thousands of dollars apiece (if not more).

Belatedly recognizing that there were shenanigans afoot, in 2005 the agency froze the processing of further translator applications from that filing window until it had resolved the future buildout of LPFM.

The new Report and Order thus not only sets the parameters for the LPFM service’s expansion, but also resolves the translator mess. The latter matter I find the most interesting.

The FCC has previously been reluctant to openly admit that the flood of FM translator applications were fishy, but in the latest ruling it minces no words. Most of the applications filed in 2003 were “for speculative purposes (either for potential sale or to game the auction system) rather than a good-faith intent to construct and operate the proposed stations.” The translator-grab delayed “the processing of bona fide applications, thereby impeding efforts to bring new service to the public” and “also delayed the introduction of new LPFM service.”

3,476 new FM translator construction permits have been granted from the 2003 application-flood. Had they all been built, it would’ve doubled the number of translator stations in the United States. Of those grants, “926 (more than 25 percent) were never constructed and 1,358 (almost 40 percent) were assigned to a party other than the applicant” (i.e., sold).

The evidence of speculation is clear and rampant.”[O]ne applicant holds 24 of the 24 translator applications proposing operation within 20 kilometers of Houston’s reference coordinates and 73 applications in Texas. Two applicants hold 66 of the 74 applications proposing service to the New York City radio market.”

Of the those who participated in the translator-grab, two organizations stand above the rest: Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting and the Educational Media Foundation, both of which are religious entities. RAM/EB filed 4,219 applications in 2003 and received 1,046 construction permits before the freeze. RAM/EB has since tried to sell half of these, closing deals on “more than 400” and netting millions of dollars in the process.

EMF received 259 translator construction permits since 2003, of which nearly 30% have been sold, cancelled, or “otherwise terminated.” It still has 292 outstanding applications.

Yet the agency’s latest ruling does nothing to rectify this assault on the public airwaves. Instead, the FCC has instituted a cap on pending translator applications – each speculator will only be allowed another 70 applications to be processed, but they will only be granted if they don’t preclude the placement of LPFM stations.

This cap, says the agency, is necessary “to preserve the integrity of our licensing process” – integrity that was decimated by the activity that’s taken place between 2003 and today. The FCC says this course of action is the most administratively expedient way of clearing the application backlog and expediting the expansion of LPFM. It also claims any anti-trafficking rules regarding translators “would be highly subject to circumvention” and the process of monitoring for and enforcing such regulations “would unduly burden administrative resources and could delay processing” of other broadcast license applications.

This is policy-speak for closing the barn door after the horses have fled.

Ultimately, comparative numbers tell the tale. During the introductory round of LPFM licensing, more than 3,000 applications were filed, from which 1,327 construction permits were granted. Of those, 791 LPFM stations remain on the air today. About half of those are religious stations.

Meanwhile, more than 6,000 FM translators are already on the air – nearly half of which got there by anti-democratic means while the struggle for LPFM untangled itself. Although several thousand LPFM applications are expected during next year’s filing window, the number of actual stations that will make it on the air will be far fewer, doubling (or perhaps tripling) the number of LPFM stations nationwide.

Translators currently outnumber LPFM stations by a factor of 7-to-1. Following the resolution of the next LPFM filing window, this disparity may be reduced to something like 3-to-1.

But if the stable of prospective LPFM applicants breaks down the way they did the first time around, churches and other religious groups are likely to be the biggest winners. Considering that many of them run LPFM stations like translators (not really live, not really local), what does that portend for the real-world impact of the service?

Incidentally, the latest Report and Order allows LPFM stations to own and operate up to two of their own FM translator stations. Instead of actually promulgating policies that curb the creative reliance on translators by broadcasters (often for purposes for which the service was never intended), the FCC seems to encourage it.

The saga of LPFM’s development and the translator invasion are intimately linked. In terms of access to public spectrum, the struggle to bring meaningful diversity and public access to the airwaves has been eclipsed by the explosive growth of low-power repeater-stations.

This is likely to be the last significant opportunity for the expansion of the LPFM service – the hard work now begins to make the most of it.