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Helping Communities Go On Air

August 27, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

The people at the Prometheus Radio Project have been fighting for nearly 10 years to make low power community radio stations a reality across the country. And after filing — and winning — a lawsuit against the FCC, testifying at congressional hearings, and initiating a multi-million dollar independent study, victory is finally standing solidly in front of them. The Local Community Radio Act of 2007 was introduced to the House and Senate in June and if it becomes law, the number of low power FM stations in the U.S. could double or triple and, for the first time, they could exist in most major cities. Here’s the background from Prometheus:

>In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission established the Low Power FM (LPFM) radio service — noncommercial, local, low-powered radio that schools, community groups, churches, and any nonprofit could use to broadcast local information to their local community. There are about 800 LPFM stations on air all across the country – but groups in big cities who applied for these great new stations all lost out. Why?
>
>Because the big broadcasters — represented by the National Association of Broadcasters — convinced Congress to limit low power FM to the most rural areas, claiming that little LPFM stations would interfere with big radio stations in big cities — making the radio dial unlistenable.
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>In the law that Congress passed (the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000), they also asked the FCC to study whether or not LPFM stations would really cause interference. The FCC hired a big, independent engineering firm — the MITRE corporation — to study this potential interference — and $2.2 million later, they proved that LPFM was a great idea in big cities as well as small communities.

In their own words, here is what the MITRE study found:

>Our principal finding is that LPFM stations can safely operate three channels away from existing FPFM [full power FM] stations, provided that relatively modest distance separations are maintained between any LPFM station and receivers tuned to the potentially affected FPFM station. Those required separations are on the order of a few tens of meters in the best case, to slightly more than a kilometer in the worst case. The main exception to this finding involves FM translator receivers, which may require distance separations up to about 3.2 kilometers from 100-watt LPFM transmitters lying squarely in the main beams of the translators’ receiving antennas. If these requirements are met, both analog and digital FPFM stations should be able to operate without significant risk of harmful third-adjacent-channel interference from LPFM.

The bills that have been introduce to Congress would lift the provision that requires low power stations to be separated by at least 0.6 MHz from all other stations in the area. This requirement has made it nearly impossible for low power stations to exist anywhere other than rural areas; in cities and developed areas, there just is not enough room on the dial to squeeze a low power station in according to these rules.

For example, under the current FCC guidelines, if there was an existing FPFM station at 91.3, the next existing station going up on the dial would have to be at least at 92.1 for there to be room enough for a LPFM to be put in between. The same would be true, of course, moving down the on the dial; if there was an existing station above 89.7, there would not be enough room for an LPFM according to FCC guidelines.

The Local Community Radio Act, taking heed of the MITRE study, would make it a easier for an LPFM to find space on the dial for by only requiring a separation of 0.4 MHz between stations. If the bill passes Congress and is signed into law, an LPFM could be put, for example, in between existing stations at 91.3 and 92.5, or 91.3 and 90.1. It may not seem like a huge difference — indeed many LPFM activists believe that a space of 0.2 MHz would be sufficient given modern radios’ abilities to block out interference — but the Prometheus Radio folks think it would open up enough space on the dial to increase the number of LPFM stations across the country from the current level of about 800 to upwards of 2,000. There would also be space for a LPFM station in all U.S. cities except New York, Chicago, and L.A.

It’s been a while since the LPFM issue has been taken up by Congress and, if the bipartisan and growing list of co-sponsors that the bill has attracted is any indication, the current proposal may be approved. The Prometheus Radio Project is urging supporters of LPFM to contact their members of Congress to urge them to sign on to the bill as co-sponsors and they have several suggestions on how to do it. In an email they pointed supporters to a Consumers’ Union webtool that makes letter writing easy, a Free Press petition, and their own petition at expandlpfm.org.

For more background on the issue, a great place to look is the text of the bill itself. Its authors laid out the issues and the benefits of expanding low power stations in a clear, numbered list.

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