LPFM's Elephant In the Room

I was heartened to see that the requisite committees of the House of Representatives and Senate have both endorsed complementary bills that would expand the FCC’s low-power FM (LPFM) service toward votes on the floors of the respective chambers. Those working the issue in D.C. are very optimistic that Congress will pass both versions of the Local Community Radio Act, harmonize them, and send a version to President Obama by the end of this Congressional session.
But it’s not yet time to break out the champagne just yet. There are three reasons for this:
1. The fickleness of Congress. The Senate has just embarked on a debate over health care reform legislation that’s expected to occupy it for the next few “weeks or months.” Given that the first session of the 111th Congress is expected to end in a matter of months makes it possible that the Local Community Radio Act might get lost in the shuffle. If so, then the legislative process resets itself for the second session of the 111th Congress (TBA next year).
Additionally, because the language of the bills pending in both houses of Congress are not linguisticallyidentical, the differences will have to be hammered out in a joint House-Senate conference committee, to be convened after both full bodies have voted but before it goes to the White House.
There’s always a chance (a small chance) that a legislative ne’er-do-well might slip in some negative provision to the final bill sent to President Obama. The obvious caveat is one that’s been tried before – banning the creation of new LPFMs in New Jersey. Representatives and Senators from that state worry about the broadcast spectral-resources of New Jersey, considering it’s wedged between two major markets (Philadelphia to the west and New York to the east). Let’s hope Congress now looks at an expansion of LPFM as an easy, feel-good legislative move that garners a bit of goodwill with the voters, and stays away from poison-pills.
2. The FCC’s priorities. It is all fine and good if Congress legislates an expansion to the LPFM service. In reality, it’s not an expansion that’s being sought – just an undoing of preemptive technical restraints put on the service more than a decade ago. While the FCC has publicly stated that it’s willing to open an application window for new LPFM stations, even were to Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act this year, it’ll be at least another half-year (or more) before the FCC actually follows through to create a round of new LPFMs. And there’s still no word of whether that filing window will contain opportunities for the somewhat-forgotten LP-10 class of station (those capped at 10 watts or less), which are the most likely to find space in areas of meaningful population-saturation.
However, even if such opportunities exist, they might be nullified by the elephant in the room:
3. The pending increase to HD Radio digital sidebands. To date, many working the public-interest angle on media policy in D.C. have invested an impressive amount of energy working to expand LPFM, while the ongoing FCC policy-making over the digitalization of U.S. radio has moved forward with little or no coordinated public oversight and/or resistance. This is too bad, because higher-power HD radio signals have the possibility to further decimate the listenability of any new generation of LPFM radio stations.
How? At present, FM stations are permitted to broadcast with digital “sidebands” that are 1/100th the power of their analog signals. So, if you run a 10,000 watt radio station and want to add HD “functionality,” by design you are allowed effectively double your station’s spectral footprint, and the digital sidebands added to your signal are capped at 100 watts – which just so happens to be the maximum-allowable effective radiated analog power of any LPFM station the country.
Currently, the FCC is considering allowing power increases for HD Radio sidebands: at a minimum, it will allow stations to quadruple their digital transmission power; at a maximum, stations may be allowed to pump up the (digital) volume by as much as 10x. Most importantly, this proposed power increase applies on the edges of all hybrid analog/digital FM signals. Therefore, at a minimum, most if not all HD-enabled FM stations will likely be running digital sidebands at power levels higher than those allowed as analog maximums in the LPFM service. The implications of this have not been substantively examined.
To put it in practical terms, under the proposed change, every licensed full-power analog radio station running at 500 watts or more will have the capability to place digital sidebands along their analog signals that either meet or exceed the power of any LPFM station, present or future. For what it’s worth, HD Radio provides no net benefits for LPFM stations; under the current power-hike proposal, LPFM stations would be allowed to deploy HD sidebands at the whopping maximum potential power of 10 watts.
Given HD Radio’s adoptive trajectory, it’s not likely that every FM station running 500 watts or more will purchase and deploy HD Radio equipment due to this potential power hike. But if the trajectory of HD Radio’s interfering characteristics continues as its proliferation does, LPFM might be marginalized by a related policy proceeding that’s proceeded, ironically, along the same chronological timeline as LPFM’s convolutions.
We may end up rueing the days of relatively ignoring HD in favor of what wonk once called the closest thing to instant gratification in a spectrum policymaking proceeding. Unfortunately, that’s realpolitik for you: funders can easily grasp the concepts and benefits of LPFM, but HD Radio is simply too arcane to attract the attention of those who subsidize the good works in Washington. Here’s hoping that investment doesn’t sour.