AM Revitalization Order Released

At the close of business last Friday, and with little fanfare, the FCC released its first AM revitalization Report and Order. This rulemaking began two years ago and the most significant outcomes have little to do with the AM band itself.
Comparing the FCC’s proposed rulemaking to the R&O shows that most of the agency’s initial proposals will be enacted. This includes things like allowing for more flexbility on interference calculations and protections, antenna siting and design, the option to use analog transmission protocols that are more energy-efficent, and increased utilization of AM’s expanded band channels. But the meat of the R&O involvews developments regarding the FM band and the utter lack of comment on a digital strategy for AM.
After a flurry of heavy lobbying by commercial broadcasters and their allies, including former FCC Commissioners, the agency capitulated and approved plans that will give AM broadcasters increased opportunities to secure FM translators. First, the agency will accept applications next year to move existing FM translators up to 250 miles from their current locations to serve an AM broadcaster. This includes applications for which translators have not been built: hundreds of construction permits awarded from the Great Translator Invasion of 2003 are close to expiration, and the FCC hopes this policy will spur those speculators to actually construct the stations they promised to.
The second part of the process will involve a special application filing window for translators for AM broadcasters, to be held in 2017. Lower-power and daytime-limited stations will receive priority for these, though all who receive a new translator are required to rebroadcast only the AM station. Interestingly, for those who acquire existing translators, they must observe this rebroadcast requirement for just four years, after which they will be free to repurpose them.
For the first time, the FCC acknowledged the vibrant market that exists for FM translators, though it downplays the market’s vibrancy, noting simply that “the vast majority of stations” sold over the past year went “for under $100,000, and a substantial majority of those for less than $50,000.” Honest analysis would involve the FCC should mapping the transactional history of FM translator sales for much more than a year; if it had, it might have included some safeguards in the R&O to prevent further speculation in the translator marketplace.
In his e-mail newsletter today, industry maven Tom Taylor minced no words: “You can foresee a mini-Oklahoma Land Rush, can’t you?”
Missing nearly completely from this document is any mention of digital radio on the AM band. Some commenters in the proceeding suggested limiting expansion in the AM band to all-digital stations, but the FCC observes that “the record is not yet established on the technical standards needed to establish interference protection for digital-to-digital stations, much less digital-to-analog or digital-to-hybrid.” In a Notice of Inquiry designed to explore further options for AM revitalization, the FCC does ask whether priority should be given to new stations on the AM expanded band that commit to all-digital operation, but it is one of many questions of preference the agency has tossed out there. From a policy-perspective, AM-HD is firmly in the afterthought camp.
As expected, the Commissioners themselves were self-congratulatory save Jessica Rosenworcel, who did not release a separate statement. Chairman Tom Wheeler crowed that their work to make more translators available to AM stations “will dramatically increase the usability of the 6,800 previously authorized translators on the market and should result in significantly lower prices” (good luck with that).
Ajit Pai, who has made this a personal policy priority, admits that giving FM spectrum to AM broadcasters does little to address the problems that plague AM, but thinks they will serve “as a vital bridge to the future” while they make a longer-term assessment of the band.
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly genuflected to Pai and his efforts moving this suite of policy changes forward, though he wonders aloud about the future fate of AM: “The American people will ultimately decide the fate of AM radio and its place in the American entertainment and information marketplace,” and there’s only so much that regulation can do, in his opinion, to influence this.
And Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — the true inspirator of this proposal, for it would not even exist without her tenure as interim Chairman before the appointment of Tom Wheeler — believes they have achieved “an outstanding result,” especially since it prioritizes FM “relief” for the weakest AM stations. That said, she also laments the fact that “much of the back-and-forth on the best way to provide this relief played out in the press, instead of within the walls of the Commission,” though when you’re laying out an endgame of this magnitude do you really expect any less?
Once all the relatively minor technical tweaks to AM engineering have been exhausted, AM-HD proponents give up the ghost, and rising environmental interference functionally overwhelms smaller AM stations, we’ll begin to see the sunsetting of the band entirely. Broadcasters will argue that the economics of running an AM station are no longer sustainable, at which point they’ll lobby to “upgrade” FM translators into stand-alone primary stations along with a loosening of local market ownership caps to keep this ploy within the bounds of legality. In the end, these policy efforts should be categorized more accurately as migration, not revitalization.