REC, NAB, NPR, HD Radio and broadcasters express their concerns about using boosters for geo-targeted advertising
The comment period has closed in MB Docket 20-402 in the Geo-Targeted Booster proceeding. In this specific comment period, the FCC wanted comments related to the recent testing of Geo Broadcast Systems (GBS) "zone-casting" system based on the reports submitted by GBS. The tests were conducted at KSJO, San Jose, California and WRBJ-FM, Brandon Mississippi. The following is a brief summary of the comments, both supporting and opposing, regarding zone-casting and the recent tests.
National Association of Broadcasters: NAB stated in their comments that the tests were conclusive that zonecasting should not be authorized. NAB states that the testing environment created an "artificially favorable design" for GBS's field tests. On the issue of transition zones (the area where both the primary station and the booster put an equal field strength at the receiver which can cause static or other undesired results), NAB states that GBS's best scenario indicates that for vehicles traveling 60 MPH, the minimized interference area would be up to 7 seconds and the test fails to consider what will happen if traffic speeds are slowed. With that, ZoneCasting could endanger listeners stuck in traffic as they try to escape severe weather of other emergency. The NAB also points out that GBS did not conduct any listener tests to determine how radio listeners without the technical knowledge of the system would react to the experience. NAB also states the testing of HD Radio was only limited to one site (KSJO). Overall, NAB feels that the costs to consumers of allowing ZoneCasting far outweigh the hypothetical benefits suggested by GBS. [NAB analysis of the technical report].
National Public Radio: NPR also raises concerns about the transition zone where the interference would cause undue interference on listeners and threaten the fidelity of FM radio causing more listeners to choose other non-broadcast alternatives (such as in-car streaming). NPR also remains concerned about the potential for interruption to the Emergency Alert System by Geo-Targeted stations. With that, NPR asks the FCC to decline any change in the rules, terminate the proceeding and deny any future experimental testing.
Xperi Holding Corporation: The rights holder of the HD Radio technology stated that the testing only included one HD Radio scenario (KSJO) and that the test scenario failed to account for all of the problematic scenarios or test routes thus creating an incomplete record. Xperi is concerned that the issues in the transition zones will result in listener complaints and could lead to the unintended consequence of the automotive industry losing its enthusiasm for broadcast radio as a featured service. Xperi believes that these new technologies should be evaluated through independent third parties to ensure the broadcast industry's best interests are well served citing the extensive HD Radio testing that was performed by the National Radio Systems Committee. They also share NPR's concerns that the disruption to the listening experience will have significant repercussions for broadcasters and automotive manufacturers alike. [Xperi's technical evaluation of the ZoneCasting field report]
REC Networks: REC's concerns are focused mainly on whether FM boosters that are being licensed for the use of ZoneCasting meet the statutory requirements of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which states in Section 5, that when licensing new LPFM, FM translators and FM boosters, that those decisions are made based on the needs of the community. REC reminds the Commission that despite some common belief, the LCRA does not just apply to LPFM only or the relationship between LPFM and the other secondary services, but LPFM, translators and boosters as a whole. In a previous proceeding, REC proposed a "community need criteria", which states that for a new FM booster to meet the "needs of the community", it must provide FM service into any area where, based on terrain-based propagation analysis, does not receive a usable (defined as 54 dB or stronger) radio service from the primary station within the FM booster's 60 dBu service contour area. In these tests, REC stated that while the San Jose boosters did not meet the Community Need Criteria, there was the extenuating circumstance of the location being in a mountain pass of a major Northern California freeway that handles 250,000 vehicles a day and that within the pass, there was nearly a 2 mile stretch of freeway that did not receive at least 54 dBu field strength from the primary station. Thus, REC revised its Community Need Criteria to address situations like this. The WRBJ test was entirely on flat land and used 8 boosters in order to create a "zone" in Jackson, Mississippi. REC demonstrated that most listeners within the zoned area would have already received a usable signal from the primary station. Therefore, the WRBJ boosters would fail REC's Community Need Criteria and should not be licensed pursuant to federal statute (LCRA). REC makes other recommendations for booster rule changes including a requirement of co-channel interference protection, the ability to allow for interference reports to be filed at the time of application, similar to the FM translator interference remediation rules and to permit FM translators with service area similar to the KSJO situation to be able to obtain FM boosters if the Community Need Criteria is met. REC Networks remains opposed to the use of Geo-Targeting for the purpose of advertising as it will create discriminatory advertising practices and shift the station's focus away from the community of license. REC does not oppose the ability for noncommercial educational stations, which have no commercial aspirations, to be able to carry separate content for a short period of time on FM boosters.
Smaller Broadcasters: A joint filing representing the interests of over 50 owners of nearly 90 radio stations supports the GeoTargeting technology and includes a technical analysis the GBS studies. In the technical report, they stated that the (GBS) test plan's methodology, analysis and conclusion are sound and that the test plan reflects careful analysis designed to address key parameters that should be assessed. The methodology described and the equipment used are consistent with those tools general used by broadcast consulting companies and that the assessment on multipath was consistent with how broadcasters would assess the situation. They conclude that if permitted, geo-targeted broadcast systems may provide beneficial capabilities for specialized applications and promotes efficient use of spectrum which is encouraged by the FCC.
Larger Broadcasters: A joint filing representing Audacy, Beasley, Cumulus, iHeart, New York Public Radio and Salem mirror many of the concerns of NAB, NPR and Xperi stating that the testing lacked any listener surveys or evaluation, the increased interference to listeners and the lack of testing with HD Radio. They also mirror many past comments of NPR, NAB and REC that the concept of ZoneCasting is a "race to the bottom", may put undue expense on broadcasters who may feel competitively compelled to deploy the system, which would result in smaller, minority and woman owned stations to suffer disproportionately, in the exact opposite way that GBS is promoting the ZoneCasting as a benefit to minority owned stations. Also also address the past concerns of REC and others who state that ZoneCasting and the favoring of "gold coast" areas over other areas would be the FCC opening the door to advertising redlining in a manner similar to the now-banned "no Spanish/no urban" advertising practice.
Additional comments were submitted by Press Communications (opposing GeoTargeting), TBA Communications (supporting the ZoneCasting technology), Flagstaff Radio, Inc. (an owner of 5 stations in Arizona, supporting the technology) and Kevin Fitzgerald (supporting the technology).
Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt wrote an interesting letter to Commissioner Carr about the problems of ZoneCasting. An article summarizing that letter can be found at RadioWorld.
REC Networks Updated Position Statements on FM Boosters
- First and foremost, we must not lose sight on the fact that the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 is still in force and despite the motivation for its passage, it is not only limited to LPFM stations, but also applies to FM translators and FM boosters. The language is right there in Section 5.
- FM boosters were originally created to serve a community need by providing a method for filling in a complete gap in coverage due to terrain obstructions. For decades, this has been the definition of boosters and nothing that has taken place in recent times should influence a change in that definition.
- There is a difference between "community need" and "station want". A line needs to be drawn in the sand between whether the decision to license a new FM booster does or does not meet the needs of the local community as mandated in the LCRA.
- REC supports a "community need criteria" that defines community need as being met as a proposed booster where within the 60 dBu service contour of the booster, at least 40% of the population currently do not receive a usable (54 dB) signal from the primary station using terrain-based propagation modeling (such as Longley/Rice) or that there is an extenuating circumstance, such as a loss of 54 dBu service in a mountain pass or canyon that is well traveled.
- LPFM and FM translator stations are subject to interference from FM boosters, mainly from FM stations that made modifications after the LPFM and FM translator operations were originally authorized. Due to the lack of co-channel protection from a booster to another "equal in status" secondary station, the FCC is implying a de facto primary service status for FM boosters in these situations. The FCC must enact rules that protect co-channel primary and secondary stations from FM boosters and allow interference complaints to happen at the time of application and not only at the time of license, after the damage was done.
- While REC objects to GeoTargeting/ZoneCasting to be used in a commercial manner from a policy and social justice perspective as well as the interference zones for aggressively placed boosters, we are still intrigued by the overall technology and if implemented correctly, could be used in some noncommercial settings to help advance educational objectives. REC will not be pursuing such application. We note that what GBS has proposed could work better in an environment where there was a true single frequency network (SFN), meaning one transmitter that served one area and one that served another with no "primary" station that is supposed to cover the entire area. We note the SFN networks in France that are that way as well as the community stations in Japan that operate multiple transmitters in an SFN (but are not necessarily running split programming). Without the commercial aspiration of the ZoneCasting technology, the technology is not worth further examining.
- There is no need for second-adjacent channel protections or filing windows for new FM boosters as the FCC has considered in the past. The only protections that we need to prevent a "booster boom" is (1) a requirement that 100% of the primary programming must air on the booster, (2) expanding §74.1204(f) to allow interference packages at the time of application against booster proposals and (3) adding new protections for co-channel interference.
- REC is aware of some FM translators with wide coverage areas in mountainous areas like California that would benefit from FM boosters used to enhance reception in mountain passes and canyons within the translator's service area. The FCC should consider expanding the availability of FM boosters to FM translator operators, subject to the REC proposed community need criteria.
Reply comments in MB Docket 20-401 are due by Thursday, June 21, 2022.