FCC adopts rulemaking for Geo-targeted FM boosters on an experimental basis. Proposes to make permanent.

In a Report and Order released today, the FCC has given the green light for broadcast stations, including noncommercial educational (NCE) and low power FM (LPFM) stations to operate FM boosters that can originate its own programming up to three minutes per hour.

FM boosters, not to be confused with FM translators are separate transmitters operating on the same frequency as the main broadcast station that rebroadcast the signal of the main station.  Boosters are normally used in areas where reception of the main station is impeded by terrain or other factors.  The service areas of FM boosters are limited to the area within the 60 dBu service contour of the main station.  In other words, the service contour of the booster must remain entirely within the main station’s service contour and cannot be used to extend the reach of the station outside of its authorized service contour.  FM translators are limited to 20% of the effective radiated power (ERP) of the main station’s service class (for example, boosters operated by LPFM stations are limited to 20 watts ERP).

This ability was requested by a company called Geo Broadcast Solutions (GBS), which markets a technology called zone-casting (or geo-targeting).  The primary use of zone-casting is to allow the service area received by a booster to receive different advertising/underwriting as well as other information such as localized weather, school closures and other similar announcements intended for just that area and not the overall coverage area of the main station.  

While boosters are normally used in areas with very weak or no reception by the main station, GBS plans to take advantage of “capture effect” in order to broadcast the geo-targeted messages.  “Capture effect” is where the signal of a stronger signal on the same frequency is able to “capture” the FM receiver and present the programming on the capturing transmitter (in this case, the booster).  In many, but not all cases, the audio of the booster is synchronized with the audio from the main transmitter and in some cases, the average listener may not know that they are actually listening to a booster.

While REC Networks was intrigued by the technology, we did raise concerns due to both technical and economic concerns.  Geo-targeting was sold to the FCC as a means of improving broadcasters, especially those owned by women and minorities.  In our opposition to the technology, REC stated that it was concerned that this new application for using an FM booster would create a “booster boom” by placing boosters in areas where boosters would not normally be warranted, taking advantage of capture effect in order to broadcast different advertising and other messages to different ‘zones’.  REC stated that the additional boosters will increase the “noise floor” which increases interference and could cause interference to other services, including existing LPFM and FM translator stations.  REC stated that a “booster boom” would be inconsistent with the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (LCRA), which states that the FCC must issue licenses for LPFM, FM translators and FM boosters based on community need and that all three service types must remain equal in status.

In the Report and Order, the FCC states that the implementation of zone-casting by a broadcast station with boosters is completely optional and that stations deploying zone-casting/geo-targeting are not limited to using the GBS-specific technology. 

FM boosters that use zone-casting are limited to only three minutes (180 seconds) of local origination per hour.  In hours where less than 180 seconds of locally originated programming on the booster takes place, the remaining time cannot be “carried over” into the next hour. There are no specific restrictions on the program content, however, all existing rules regarding content, such as the noncommercial nature of educational broadcast stations, etc. continue to apply.

FM boosters using zone-casting must be equipped with technology that, in the event of an activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the booster will break away from locally originated programming and return to the main station’s programming to broadcast the alert.

To address some LCRA concerns, a main broadcast station will be limited to 25 FM boosters that originate programming.  The use of 25 boosters is quite uncommon, both prior to zone-casting as well as during the testing that GBS conducted for the technology, even though GBS has included materials that suggest that broadcast stations could construct dozens of FM boosters in order to provide zone-casting.  Despite the limit announced today in the Report and Order, LPFM stations are still limited to two boosters (or one translator and one booster or two translators). 

As an interim process, the FCC will allow broadcast stations with boosters that wish to engage in zone-casting operation to file for an experimental authorization prior to deploying the technology.  Those without a booster in the desired location will need to also file for a construction permit for a new booster (which can be done outside of a filing window).  

The FCC denied REC’s request that FM booster applicants, as part of LCRA compliance to demonstrate “community need” through a technical showing that the area served by the proposed FM booster does not receive a strong signal from the main station.  The FCC also misinterpreted our comments and failed to address co-channel interference between new FM boosters and existing secondary stations such as FM translators and LPFM stations.  As noted below, the FCC will be proposing a new interference remediation policy for boosters while in the pre-construction phases.  FCC Rules currently require FM translators to protect first-adjacent facilities, but not facilities on the same channel or on second or third-adjacent channels.

In addition to today’s Report and Order specific prompting rule changes, the FCC has also included a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which proposes the following:

  • Reverting from the use of experimental authorizations to a more permanent method of authorization (experimental authorizations are only good for one year, but can be renewed), including a new form in LMS that will be used for such notifications. 
  • An REC requested modification to §74.1204(f) of the Rules, which would extend the pre-construction FM translator interference remediation policy (the 45 dB rule) to also include the ability for impacted stations to file an interference package against proposed FM booster operations following the same guidelines as FM translator stations.
  • A requirement that FM boosters implement synchronization. REC opposes this change because some boosters in hard terrain situations, do not specifically need synchronization in order to provide a good service to the public.
  • The question to whether booster operators that have EAS-related issues should report information to the FCC or FEMA.
  • To make permanent, the cap of 25 zone-casted boosters per main station (LPFM would remain at 2).
  • Whether broadcast stations (including LPFM) should maintain a separate political file for FM booster stations.
  • Whether any other technical or non-technical safeguards will be needed.
  • Modification of §73.801 of the LPFM rules to include references to rules outside of Part 73.

Comment and Reply Comment dates on the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in MB Docket 20-401 will be announced at a later time after publication in the Federal Register.

REC advises LPFM stations to be watchful for increased FM booster activity by using tools such as the myLPFM portal, which is available free to all LPFM stations as well as monitoring the daily activity at FCC.today.