The Conundrum of FM Translator Interference

Posted on April 27th, 2017 by

As the use of FM translators has boomed in the past several years, instances of predicted and actual interference were bound to increase. And increase they have, with numerous full power stations filing for relief with the FCC and FM translator licensees and permittees scrambling to eliminate interference under the FCC’s rules and prior precedent.

As secondary FM signals, translators may not interfere with existing full power FM stations. And for years now, the FCC has followed an established procedure for addressing such interference complaints, requiring certain forms of proof before ordering a translator to shut down. It takes time and effort, regardless of whether you are the translator or the full power station. Recently, with a few pitched interference battles raging — some with the backdrop of an AM station trying to survive under revitalization policies — the FCC staff has been trying to encourage parties to resolve their complaints without an FCC decision being issued.

So it was inevitable that a cry for modification of the FM translator interference rule/standard would surface. In fact, it may now be an outcry. A few petitions for rulemaking, one by broadcaster Aztec, and another one by the NAB, have been filed, proposing that the complaint process be streamlined (even with a shot clock), and that standards used for determining interference be tightened. We especially like one suggestion by NAB that a translator causing interference be allowed to move to any available channel, as opposed to the current minor modification limitation of 3 channels away, up or down the dial.

At the heart of these proposals is the question of whether it remains legitimate for a full power station to receive “protection” from an FM translator in areas that are outside the FM station’s protected interference contour. Under today’s rules, a complaint is entertained if actual interference is received by any regular listener of the FM station, even if that listener is far outside of the full power FM station’s protected contour.

The FCC has not commented or reacted to these filings in any way. They have a few options. One would be to accept comments on whether the petitions have enough merit to warrant the opening of a rulemaking proceeding. Another would be to launch the proposed rulemaking and take comments on the rule change. We don’t see a declaratory ruling or anything in the works here. But with major broadcasters now using translators as much as smaller broadcasters, we believe some change is likely and hope for a brokered, equitable and fair outcome.