AM Broadcasters Still Seek Translators, Digital Authorization

When the FCC announced the creation of an “AM Revitalization Initiative” in 2013, the proposal included a grab-bag of industry desires, such as the right for AM stations to utilize FM translators and for AM stations to move from hybrid analog/digital broadcasting to the all-digital AM-HD protocol. But to the consternation of industry lobbyists and HD-backers there’s been no movement on this initiative — so now they’re beginning to whine about it.
Case in point is a commentary published in late June by Frank Montero, an attorney at D.C. communications law powerhouse Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, which laments that AM broadcasters are being held hostage without access to FM translators and accuses the FCC of playing political football with the future of AM itself. It’s full of questionable assertions and revisionist history.
Like any good lawyer, Montero cites precedent to make his case. He notes that there’s been significant growth in translators since 2003, when speculators overwhelmed the FCC’s filing system with tens of thousands of translator applications, of which several thousand were granted. Since then, a vibrant market in translator stations has positively exploded: much of this involves religious broadcasters (Educational Media Foundation, WAY-FM, Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting, etc.) selling or leasing translators to established conglomerates (Clear Channel iHeartMedia, Cumulus, Saga, Entercom, etc.).
These broadcasters use translators add “new stations” to a market without running afoul of the FCC’s radio ownership caps (as translators aren’t counted as “real” stations). Many of these translators run recycled programming, like rebroadcasting FM-HD subchannels in analog or importing programming from stations they own in other markets.
At the same time, broadcasters (with the help of folks like Montero) have gamed the FCC’s station-modification rules to “hop” translators from rural areas into urban and suburban cores. In many cases, a translator station is temporarily established in its “original” locale, after which a series of applications are filed to move it dozens or hundreds of miles. This is policy sleight-of-hand in the finest sense – making a promise to serve one community with no real intent of doing so.
While it is true that the majority of broadcasters engaged in translator speculation and trafficking are mostly invested in FM, it’s not like AM hasn’t already had a bite at this apple. In 2009, the FCC approved a policy that allows AM broadcasters to acquire FM translators. But the agency, having wrestled with the rampant speculation and trafficking problem, limited AM stations’ access to the existing translator market only, in order to preserve some open channels for a planned LPFM filing window.
Montero notes that the 2013 LPFM window attracted some 2,800 applications, which further diminishes the potential availability of translators for AM stations. Since then, the FCC has also cracked down on the translator-hopping process, and Chairman Tom Wheeler has backed away from allowing AM stations to apply for new translator construction permits.
The takeaway, according to Montero, is that these moves effectively condemn many AM broadcasters to a slow death. According to him, more than 3,000 AM stations don’t currently have their own translator(s), and given current policy trajectories “893 AM stations have zero chance” to ever acquire one. His solution is to move AM broadcasters to “the front of the queue” for FM spectrum to rectify these historical wrongs.
Problem is, his history is bunk. Let’s unpack the timeline:
2000-01: FCC approves LPFM and attracts ~3,200 station applications, from which ~800 LPFM stations remain on the air today.
2003: FCC opens FM translator filing window which attracts more than 13,000 applications and results in ~3-4,000 translator construction permits – the majority of which will be built.
2009: FCC allows AM stations to acquire FM translators, while also attempting to rein in rampant market speculation.
2013: FCC opens second (and final) LPFM filing window, resulting in ~2,800 applications. If the original trend holds true, fewer than half of these applications will result in viable LPFM licensees.
2014: FCC signals it may no longer allow the “hopping” of FM translators from market-to-market (and even state-to-state).
2015: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests there will be no new FM translator application windows on the horizon.
From this point, the math is easy: far from LPFM being a boondoggle that usurped useable spectrum from incumbent broadcasters, the incumbents have been able to acquire several thousand new FM translators over the last decade. Even LPFM’s most optimistic proponents hope that when all is said and done there are some 2,000 LPFM stations on the air. At best, that’s a bit more than half of the number of FM translator stations that have been approved and licensed over the same time-frame.
And now you want more? It’s nobody’s fault but AM broadcasters for the positions many find themselves in today. Decades of industry pressure for “hands-off” regulation has turned the AM dial into RF chowder. Sorry that neoliberalism hasn’t worked out in your favor, but hey, that’s the marketplace in action.
This argument isn’t even new: back in 2013, Clear Channel iHeartMedia tried some last-minute lobbying for AM stations to acquire FM translators prior to the latest LPFM filing window, but the FCC did not bite. It would be irresponsible for the agency to further weaken the integrity of the FM dial by making special dispensations for broadcasters weren’t smart enough to think long-ball.
Montero’s bloviation comes on the heels of a white paper published by NAB Labs in the June 10th issue of Radio World Engineering Extra detailing testing done with the all-digital AM-HD protocol. The results aren’t a slam-dunk for full-on digitalization — rather, they highlight that any path to an all-digital AM-HD radio dial remains somewhat complicated.
Major takeaways involve signal robustness and interference-potential, and in both realms the data presents a mixed bag. While all-digital AM-HD has a smaller spectral footprint than the hybrid analog/digital system currently in use, which occupies 30 KHz of spectrum, it still utilizes more bandwidth than an analog signal (twice as much, unless the AM-HD station runs in the 10KHz “reduced-bandwidth mode”).
That said, the white paper claims that all-digtial AM-HD “will cause significantly less interference to adjacent channel signals by virtue of its reduced bandwidth…compared to hybrid AM….Consequently, it would appear that there is no need to conduct additional adjacent-channel interference tests on the all-digital AM signal since the exhaustive hybrid AM tests already conducted represent the worst-case adjacent-channel interference conditions for the HD Radio system.”
This is broadcasters’ way of admitting that the hybrid system they advocated adopting more than 10 years ago fails the “no new spectrum” claim, and that all prior claims about AM-HD’s negligible impact on the AM dial are invalid. Not only has this horse left the barn, but the barn itself is on fire now, so quibbles like this (in their view) no longer have any bearing on things — this is simply “normal” AM-HD system behavior.
At the same time, interference between all-digital and analog-only AM stations that share the same channel requires more testing because “interference from an all-digital AM signal will be greater than experienced from a hybrid AM signal since the digital sidebands…are significantly more powerful.” Interference conditions of this sort have not really been explored at all, except in laboratory settings.
The white paper also notes that some stations had difficulty passing the all-digital AM-HD signal within the spectral mask authorized by the National Radio Systems Committee: what this means is that some all-digital AM-HD configurations generate “splatter,” or signal leakage above and beyond the power levels and channel assignments mandated by the NRSC and FCC. This would seem to confirm the notion that not all AM stations will be capable of adopting the HD system, depending on their antenna configurations and authorized signal-patterns.
What benefits will AM stations get if they go all-digital? The white paper notes that full-on AM-HD signals are more listenable at greater distances than the hybrid analog/digital system, and in some (but not all) conditions they nearly replicate analog service areas, though they are susceptible to the same (non-broadcast) interference of analog AM signals. The difference between analog and all-digital nighttime coverage also varies depending on the station and local RF conditions. The tests confirmed that all-digital AM-HD skywave reception is possible, but suffers from the same band-pollution that has reduced analog nighttime AM coverage.
Stations that broadcast with the full-bandwidth (20Khz wide) AM-HD signal can transmit up to 40 kbps of data in two-channel stereo, with a little overhead remaining for rudimentary program-data (station name, artist, song title, EAS notifications). If a station elects to broadcast in the 10 KHz reduced-bandwidth mode, they can pass just 20 kbps of data (not enough for full stereo) as well as a trickle of datacast capacity.
The big question remains unanswered: is this enough of an improvement over the existing analog regime to entice AM broadcasters to adopt a technology that’s left a sour taste in their mouth for more than a decade? Considering the costs of AM-HD implementation (typically in the six-figure range) it remains to be seen whether or not this is enough of a benefit for stations to make the investment.
Most of them would rather migrate to the FM dial via the use of a translator or two — even those that support AM-HD freely admit this. But the only way for that to happen is if the FCC can be enticed to further rewrite its translator rules to turn them into primary rather than secondary stations, and perhaps relaxing interference-protection standards to shoehorn more translators onto the dial.
Anybody with half a brain that’s been watching radio policymaking in the United States this millennium knows that we are witnessing the endgame for claiming the remaining useable broadcast spectrum: a fracking-like rush to exploit resources previously considered unattainable, but not without great risk and in relative ignorance of the consequences. Whether it’s by technology or by policy, incumbent broadcasters are making sure that any chance for new competition or voices on the broadcast airwaves is utterly foreclosed; like their television bretheren, they know that spectrum is valuable and are seeking to hoard as much as they can for the eventual payday when it is repurposed for something else.

2 thoughts on “AM Broadcasters Still Seek Translators, Digital Authorization”

  1. I was going to go into full rant mode about this, but why bother. You summed it up nicely in your last paragraph.
    “Whether it’s by technology or by policy, incumbent broadcasters are making sure that any chance for new competition or voices on the broadcast airwaves is utterly foreclosed; like their television bretheren, they know that spectrum is valuable and are seeking to hoard as much as they can for the eventual payday when it is repurposed for something else.”
    Game over!
    So long FM Band
    So Long Community stations
    So long Indies/Mom-Pops
    While the FM Band circles the toilet bowl, much like the rest of the nation!
    Greedy Self Centered Money Grubbing Bastards!

  2. Believe me, I am not looking forward to the endgame (whatever it is)…but I still believe there’s a lot of life left in the analog broadcast bands. Problem is, now if you want to utilize them meaningfully you have to do so outside the licensing regime. Sucks, but not insurmountable!
    And who knows: maybe the indies/mom&pops/community stations will get their slice of the spectrum-windfall eventually.

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