NCE Permitting Process Review and Possible Changes

Posted on January 30th, 2019 by

At its February meeting, the FCC is slated to consider and vote to adopt a proposed rulemaking to review various aspects of how noncommercial educational permits are awarded. A draft of the rulemaking with all the details can be reviewed here.

For years, the FCC has used a points system to award NCE licenses, including those for low power FM stations. Applicants certify whether they qualify for certain points, and the FCC analyzes all competing applications and determines who has the most points to be awarded a construction permit. They’ve done this hundreds of times in the past, so there is a healthy amount of precedent on just how the FCC interprets and applies the points system. But some parts of it are unwieldy, such as requiring applicants to amend their bylaws to maintain localism and diversity points, or applying a tie-breaker process that doesn’t always produce a clear winner and results in drawn out time-sharing negotiations.

There are other harsh restrictions that result from the process as well, namely holding periods that require permittees to forever maintain certain coverage areas for which they received preferences during the permit awarding process. We’ve seen permits expire because of lost tower sites or other limitations that prevent construction as planned. The FCC wants to fix that. They also want to redefine “minor change” to include situations where applicant non-profit boards have undergone a gradual change in control while an application is pending.

On the LPFM front, the draft rulemaking item would extend LPFM construction periods from 18 to 36 months and eliminate the current rule prohibiting the sale of unbuilt LPFM construction permits, replacing it with an assignment right after certain holding periods and other criteria.

It has been years since the FCC opened a noncommercial FM filing window, or an LPFM filing window. These proposed rule revisions were not prompted by a party requesting these changes, but instead were apparently issued upon staff recommendations to simplify the process. This may be a preliminary step to adding clarity to the NCE permitting process before new NCE or LPFM filing windows are opened. With any luck, the rulemaking will be completed by summer and new rules will be in effect this fall.