Low-power FM? Try nearly no-power. The scope of the controversial noncommercial service shrunk abruptly last month when Congress effectively cut the number of possible LPFM stations by an estimated 80 percent.
NPR and other opponents of the service who had worried about LPFM interfering with their stations celebrated their victory, while media activists, former pirates and other microradio supporters accused lawmakers of bowing to pressure from the powerful broadcasting lobby.
"We are disappointed that Congress chose to ignore the will of the people," said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the pro-LPFM Media Access Project. "This was an unjustified power grab by all broadcasters for what was essentially a moderate request--to give a small piece of the airwaves back to the public."
"The extent of congressional meddling into the technical affairs of the FCC is unprecedented, and proves that the public has indeed lost all control over the 'public' airwaves," said Peter Franck of the National Lawyers' Guild Center for Democratic Communications.
Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who had been pushing a bill that would have been much easier on LPFM, railed against the new law, which was attached to a budget bill with a raft of riders. McCain has said he'll look into reversing the legislation.
President Clinton had threatened to veto the budget bill — in part because of the LPFM rider mdash; and later lamented the measure as he signed it into law.
"I am deeply disappointed that Congress chose to restrict the voice of our nation's churches, schools, civic organizations and community groups," he said. "I commend the FCC for giving a voice to the voiceless, and I urge the Commission to go forward in licensing as many stations as possible consistent with the limitations imposed by Congress."
The FCC's original LPFM plan, initiated a year ago, would have made room for more LPFM stations by letting them ignore third-adjacent protections for full-power stations. For example, a full-power FM station at 91.9 has to keep a certain distance from another full-power station at 91.3. The FCC's plan would have allowed an LPFM to ignore that rule.
But Congress forced the FCC to reinstate third-adjacent protections against LPFMs, limiting the number of new low-power stations that can go on the air. The FCC estimates the rule will cut the number of LPFM stations by 80 percent.
Churches win half of licenses
There's still a chance that the commission could roll out larger numbers of LPFM licenses. Congress required the FCC to pick an independent entity to conduct a nine-market field test of LPFM. The test would drop third-adjacent protections to see if the low-power stations interfere with full-power stations. Congress also asked the FCC to study LPFM's effect on FM translators, terrestrial digital radio, radio reading services for the blind, and even its economic impact on full-power broadcasters.
There are many unanswered questions about the field tests. Congress set a Feb. 1 deadline for the tests, and it's unclear if the FCC will make that date. And the law provided no money for the tests. An FCC spokesman says it's not in the budget, either.
Some low-power wannabes can still forge ahead. The FCC had already accepted over 1,200 applications from 20 states before Congress limited the service. Last month, the agency announced that 255 of those applicants are eligible for low-power licenses. The eligible broadcasters meet the new restrictions imposed by Congress, and FCC officials could start giving out construction permits this month. About half of the eligible broadcasters are religious organizations.
The FCC will also open a long-delayed third filing window for LPFM applications Jan. 16 .
Leanza is hopeful that the new stations will raise the tide of voices against Congress's actions. "The successful stations that get on the air will clearly show people that the service is not a threat, and is something that we should foster, rather than stamp out," she said.
Background on the interference issues at stake.
Nonprofits envision a future for LPFM, 2000.