Band bottleneck

FCC tries to resolve radio-license Catch-22

The FCC this week will try to break a logjam of about 600 new radio licenses. The backup was created in July when federal judges barred auctions of broadcast licenses when noncommercial operators are among the applicants.

The court ruled that a 1997 law forbids the FCC's making noncommercial stations participate in spectrum auctions, even for the commercial portion.

Public broadcasters may locate on unreserved portions, and many allotments are snagged on competing applications by commercial and noncommercial stations. Most broadcasters are willing to negotiate settlements, but commercial applicants say many public broadcasters are seeking too high a price to pull out, according to attorneys for broadcast companies.

Several proposals have been floated. Among them:

  • Disqualify noncommercials from acquiring allotments on the commercial band.
  • Make both commercial and noncommercial applicants compete under a point system measuring public-interest benefits.
  • For a new allotment, determine whether the number of public radio stations in the market mirrors the national average. If it doesn't, the noncommercial station gets the license.

National Public Radio has said it will challenge any rule barring noncommercial operators from the nonreserved band. Similarly, broadcast owners vow to combat options they see as skewed for public operators.

They also note that 1,500 applications on the noncommercial band that have been stalled for years remain so because the FCC hasn't utilized a points system installed last summer.

Some frustrated broadcasters say the best solution would be for Congress to clarify the 1997 law, but FCC Chairman Michael Powell has been reluctant to tell lawmakers they got it wrong.